How African Solar Addresses Energy Inequity

How solar can help rapidly modernize the African electric grid. (Image: Unsplash)
How solar can help rapidly modernize the African electric grid. (Image: Unsplash)

Community solar may not seem like an energy source with enough ground shaking force to make an impactful dent in the goal to reach net zero emissions. However, with scale comes strength. As of the end of Q2 2021, there was an estimated 3.4GW  of community solar installed and available in the US. While this only represents roughly 0.77% of America’s energy consumption in 2020, that’s enough stand-alone power to supply 600,000 homes.

For those unfamiliar, the U.S. Department of Energy defines community solar as “any solar project or purchasing program, within a geographic area, in which the benefits of a solar project flow to multiple customers such as individuals, businesses, nonprofits, and other groups. In most cases, customers are benefitting from energy generated by solar panels at an off-site array.”

Essentially, having the wrong type of roof, a suboptimal azimuth, or a hundred-year-old oak tree shading the bulk of one’s roof no longer prevents homeowners – or renters who have no home to benefit from local solar – from leveraging solar energy to offset coal and other carbon-intense fuel sources for electricity.

Talking with Sanjiv Sanghavi, former Chief Product Officer with Arcadia, regarding the current state of community solar, he believes the technology obstacles have been largely overcome for this form of renewables.

Sanghavi sees the current challenge as one of “dispersion” or distribution of these technologies. This requires successfully navigating a combination of policy shift, consumer education, financial infrastructure acumen, and regional differences. Community solar providers have largely broken down these barriers for the domestic market through utility bill credits, behind the scenes handling of billing integration, and pre-selling in appropriate markets. As a result, the drive to build sufficient community solar to power five million homes in the US by 2025 will address over 3% of current housing stock or 6% of homes ineligible for local solar.

What about the global impact of and need for community solar? What are the unique hurdles and what are the potential rewards? In this first article of this series, we’re going to begin a deep dive into sub-Saharan Africa and the impact of community and off-grid solar. This is a part of the world in which current energy demands (350 kWh per person) are roughly one-tenth those of the worldwide average.

The Need to Address Energy Inequity

In sub-Saharan Africa, two-thirds of people persist without access to grid electricity. This represents more than half of the population of Africa and approximately 9% of the global population. Lack of grid access impacts quality of life, health, education and economic activities. Access to more reliable home refrigeration via off-grid solar products maintains the quality of medicines and over-the-counter health care items. Similar products can be used to provide extended lighting into the evening to allow children and adults to study and further their education and potential. Keep in mind that in those homes without grid access, the fuel comes from kerosene, candles, torches and even dung. This leads to additional health risks and contributes to GHG emissions. So, finding ways to provide increasingly clean and reliable energy has a holistic impact on the people in this region.

3 Key Off-Grid / Microgrid Solar Approaches

Unlike community solar in the US, which requires a grid connection to bestow its benefits, sub-Saharan Africa requires solutions that are independent of their highly unreliable electric grid. Community/microgrid solar and off-grid solar can help these countries most in need. It provides a pathway to true social justice in climate change as it helps to elevate both the quality of life and economic outcomes for these communities.

As it relates to dispersion tactics, there are three basic approaches in play that we will discuss in this series:

  1. Foreign investment in African off-grid solar start-ups to support scale.
  2. Not-for-profits creating clearinghouses for off-grid solar products for direct marketing to consumers.
  3. Private African companies working to provide off-grid solar products directly to consumers within a specific country.

There is a more complex fourth option that involves foreign companies installing, owning and operating large-scale solar plants on behalf of utilities. Unfortunately, this option requires stable grid access, so it does not address the two-thirds of sub-Saharan Africa considered here.

For Africa to truly decarbonize their electric grid, it’s going to require a rebuild with resilient, off-grid solar systems. Because their grid is still developing, we’re currently in a unique time frame where there’s enough of an open canvas left for foreign investments to leave a bright mark.

About The Author

Brian Corn Impact

Brian Corn

Contributor @ The Impact

Brian most recently served as the CTO / CPO for PlanIT Impact, a SaaS platform focused on maximizing building resource (energy, water and stormwater) to cost performance for architects, engineers, and construction professionals (AEC) as well as building owners / operators. A life long advocate for climate change and environmentalism, his journey began most profoundly with the publishing of Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” and its subsequent activity culminating in the Live Earth concert. Since that pivotal event, Brian has followed climate change research closely with a particular interesting in environmental impacts, such as rising sea levels, shrinking biodiversity and deforestation. Currently, he is very interested in US-based efforts to drive consumer electrification, and the policy changes that need to occur to affect both supply and demand of renewables. Brian holds a BS in Computer Science from Trinity University and an MBA from University of Missouri-Kansas City Bloch School of Business.

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