Leapfrogging – Hope for a Continent

Across Africa electricity shortages are holding back economic growth. As a consequence, businesses are often forced to buy diesel generators, which are much more expensive than the equivalent cost of grid power. However, while energy-intensive businesses are hampered, smaller businesses and poor families are usually hit even harder. As a new report by the Africa Progress Panel reckons, more than 600 million people do not have access to grid power and have to spend their money on substitutes. Therefore, distributed energy resources such as solar power could be the answer for those, who are still waiting for a stable connection to the grid.

This is leapfrogging - smart micro grids instead of, Picture: Pixabay, Cotrim
This is leapfrogging – smart micro grids instead of expensive grid extentions, Picture: Pixabay, Cotrim

An Electrical Revolution

In fact, an electrical revolution is now under way based on three developments: the collapsing costs of solar power, the cut in price of LEDs and the improved storage technology. Even though the costs are still high for people with very little money, the potential saving on kerosene makes distributed energy resources a good investment. In the future, better lighting for instance enables people to work and study in the evening, and allows small businesses to stay in operation after sun set, increasing overall economic prosperity. Moreover, renewable energy systems could replace diesel generators and, consequently, power workshops, run irrigation pumps or purify water.
At an even larger level, these systems could form micro-grids – independently operating small-scale power grids. These can provide enough power for entire villages including street lightening, government offices as well as all homes and businesses. An example for this are projects carried out by the Kenyan company SteamaCo that focuses on bringing electricity to small villages.

The Potential of Renewable Energy in Africa

Africa has some of the world’s largest untapped renewable energy resources – the potential of sunny deserts as well as windy uplands and coastal regions is yet to be exploited. While numerous big fossil-fueled power plants have taken decades to finish planning and construction, they are still not producing power. Many renewable energy resources could be built quickly in order to meet immediate electricity shortages. Furthermore, in many cases it would actually be cheaper to supply remote villages – currently disconnected from the grid – with local renewable energies, instead of building expensive grid extensions.

Thanks to mobile, access to communication has increased enormously, Picture: Pixabay, Gerlat
Thanks to mobile, access to communication has increased enormously, Picture: Pixabay, Gerlat

A Chance for Leapfrogging

There is a compelling precedent: 15 years ago, only a tiny fraction of the African population had access to phones of any kind and getting a landline installed meant waiting for years. However, a term associated with rapid progress in developing countries, where several stages of development are skipped. When drawing an analogy to the energy sector, it becomes clear that solar panels paired with batteries are essentially the chance to leapfrog, as they make up for missing power plants and network expansion.
Nonetheless, experience shows that in the past some tech booms based on leapfrogging have been wrongly anticipated – in reality complex laws, a lack of experts and fragmented markets cannot simply be bypassed. In fact, successful companies such as M-KOPA – a Kenyan provider of solar home systems – had to build an entire network of old fashioned marketers going from door to door to open the market.
With regard to renewables energies three obstacles have yet to be resolved: the frequently insufficient quality of hardware, the customization to low-voltage direct current produced by renewable energy resources, and the financing gap faced by many African countries.

A Promising Outlook

Although the potential is high, it has to be pointed out that leapfrogging in the energy sector has its limits. Solar panels will help people to light their homes without burning expensive and dangerous kerosene, but they will probably not replace a functioning power grid needed by the manufacturing sector.
However, given an adequate regulatory environment and sufficient access to finance, Africa could leap ahead as one of the world’s leading producers of clean energy. Though renewable energies in Africa may not replace all fossil fuels, they will be crucial when trying to overcome the present lack of sufficient power supply.

Written by Julian Bodenschatz, LichtBlick

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