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African solar power at a tipping point

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Renewable energy, particular solar, is approaching tipping point across Africa, according to experts participating in the upcoming POWER-GEN &DistribuTECH Africa 2016 in Johannesburg.
Speaking ahead of the annual exhibition and conference, advisory board members says it has become clear across Africa that renewable energy sources hold the key to meeting future power needs across the continent.
According to SindiswaMzamo, chief operating Oofficer of the Edison Power Group: “We’ve reached a tipping point for the adoption of solar power. In the vast majority of African countries, solar is the solution for powering rural communities, because it is cost effective and does not need to be connected to a grid to power an isolated geographic area. In some debates, it has been said that people might be overestimating the potential for solar power, but we believe the wave of solar adoptions might be one of the most important initiatives in African power right now.”
Mzamo notes that growing numbers of middle class urban consumers and rural households are moving to install their own solar panels, with manufacturers bringing to market better and cheaper solutions for street lighting, security and home lighting. “Solar is the big story of the moment, and investors are seeing good returns on solar plants.”
She also sees rapid uptake of nuclear, gas and hydro power across Africa. “As Africans, we need to move away from dependence on coal and come up with alternative sources to achieve balance within the grid.”
Gilman Kasiga, CEO of EA Power Limited, echoes the view that renewable adoption is surging: “We need to address Africa’s huge energy shortage by being responsible global citizens. Technologies are getting cheaper for renewables, and when we bring scale into the equation, the prices of renewables come down further. Fossil fuels may seem more cost effective, but when you factor in the long term damage, they are not necessarily cheaper. We need to maximize the natural resources we have to address our power shortfalls.”
While renewable energy holds the potential to improve Africa’s power situation, it is not the whole solution, note the experts.
On the question of what initiatives would deliver the quickest win for African power, Mzamo says: “For me, Africa’s quick win lies in the development of effective distribution programmes within the continent. At the end of the day we need to ensure the distribution programmes we have agreed on within our national entities must be implemented. The challenge is we agree and we don’t implement. We are hampered by the convoluted structure of electricity utilities and by ageing infrastructure.  Utilities need to start making their systems smarter and ensuring that the distribution channel functions more effectively.”
Kasiga says the most effective route to power security in Africa lies in private sector investment. “The Obama Power Africa Plan is possibly the most significant initiative in recent times to support power infrastructure development in the continent. Not only did this initiative result in huge financial commitments, it also showed investors the opportunities in Africa. However, investors need certain assurances and an ROI, so power pricing must be realistic and we must offer an environment conducive to investment.”
He notes that many regions have a long way to go to attracting private sector power investment. “There are a lot of stress points in Africa, and this deters investment. We need to create stability and improve the ease of doing business. People think that tax concessions are enough to bring investment, but this is not enough. You also need elements such as a stable economy, assured returns, the ability for investors to access their forex, good sources of energy, supporting infrastructure, skilled labour, and land issues must be addressed.”
Kasiga, who serves as an advisory board member, expects POWER-GEN &DistribuTECH Africa 2016 to offer an opportunity for potential investors and financiers to meet utilities and power sector stakeholders to boost collaboration and fast-track projects across Africa.