Energy & Mining

Solar Energy in Africa

As Africa’s thirst for energy grows, Angola’s experience in tapping into solar energy sets an example for the rest of the continent.

Photo credit: Shutterstock / kingma photos

Africa is undeniably in the process of industrialization, with many sub-Saharan nations going through a period of transformation.

The continent’s population is growing at rapid pace, “three times faster than the global average,” according to The Guardian, citing statistics published by the UN.

The same UN projections tell us that Africa will be home to nearly 2 billion souls by 2050 and become the world’s most populous continent by 2070. Sub-Saharan Africa will account for a large part of this growth.

Energy as the currency of development

All these people and the continent’s expanding industrial sector will require one crucial input: energy. Manufacturing plants run on energy; an emerging middle class consumes more energy; and an ever-growing demand for the transportation of goods and people is not possible without energy.

“Based on current trajectories and policies, transport energy use on the continent is anticipated to grow by another two-thirds by 2040,” according to a report by the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP).

Joining the process of industrialization a bit late can come with some upsides for Africa’s. For one thing, African nations can learn from the experiences of others and bypass several steps toward development, especially in terms of energy policies.

Build it right the first time around

Despite being thirsty for energy, sub-Saharan Africa does not have to copy what Asia’s economic giants did toward the end of the 20th century: fueling their economic engines by burning unimaginable amounts of hydrocarbons.

Sub-Saharan Africa can place its reliance on renewables, building its energy infrastructure based on a green roadmap right from the start. The continent has the potential to tap into several forms of renewables, but solar energy seems to be particularly promising.

The World Bank’s Global Solar Atlas (2022) found that Africa is ahead of the rest of the world in terms of solar potential. The average long-term yield of industrial-scale solar installations is estimated at 4.5 kWh per square kilometer per day.

To put it in perspective, the figure is 3.4 kWh per day for Europe, which currently has the largest collective solar capacity in the world. If solar installations can work in Europe, they can definitely work in Africa, too, with the right financing.

And this is not only in theory. Africa’s true solar capacity grew by 13% between 2019 and 2020, according to a report by PwC, and the growth trend has continued so far into 2023.

We should not forget, meanwhile, that sub-Saharan Africa is a large geographical expanse. Over ten thousand kilometers separate Dakar in Senegal from Cape of Good Hope in South Africa, which is itself some 8,000km away from Cape Hafun—the continent’s easternmost point in Somalia.

However, most parts of this vast geographical expanse enjoy long sunlight hours and low levels of cloudiness, making photovoltaic installations feasible and economically viable.

Angola ahead of the rest

Around 950 megawatts of new photovoltaic capacity was installed in Africa throughout 2022, and a third of that sum (roughly 285 megawatts) was installed in Angola alone.

The sub-Saharan Africa’s only industrialized nation, South Africa, followed with 110 megawatts of new solar capacity, while Ghana and Mozambique expanded their installed solar capacity by 70 and 42 megawatts, respectively.

Another 1000 megawatts worth of solar installations are likely to be launched in Africa by the end of 2023, of which Angola will continue to have a large share. Perhaps the most notable project to watch is the Biópio solar farm which is under construction in Benguela, Angola. The solar farm will fully go online by the end of 2023, adding a whopping 188 megawatts to Angola’s photovoltaic capacity.

In addition to plants such as Biópio which feed the national grid, Angola has adopted an innovative approach for a country with a sizable rural population and limited electrical power infrastructure: local off-grid solar farms.

“To improve electrification rates in rural areas, the Angolan Ministry of Energy and Water has embarked on plans to install 30,000 solar systems to generate up to 600 MW of electricity,” according to Energy Capital and Power. In the absence of a robust national grid in many parts of sub-Saharan Africa this approach can help with the electrification of many places in the coming years, raising the quality of life for millions of people.

And the African Development Bank’s Sustainable Energy Fund for Africa which largely financed the off-grid photovoltaic enterprise in Angola will likely find faith in this decentralized approach and try it in other sub-Saharan regions as the continent continues on its path toward development.