Grid independence in Africa – Day 2 of Solar Show Africa 2016

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Andrew Herscowitz, Coordinator of the Power Africa initiative launched by the Obama Administration, gave a progress report on Power Africa’s mission to empower 600 million Africans without access to electricity. According to Herscowitz, providing electricity to four out of ten Africans will require the commissioning of 30,000 megawatts (MW) of new generating capacity.

Remarkably, a pipeline of 26,000 MW is already at an advanced stage with an “internal figure” of 54,000 MW of deals suggesting that the future may be bright. Off-grid capacity, mostly in the form of solar PV systems, plays a fundamental part in Power Africa’s initiative to bring electricity to these 600 million Africans.

Another panelist, Silas Zumi, who advises South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma on energy matters, remarked that South Africa’s constitution made access to electricity a basic right, which could not be compromised simply by ratepayers not being in a position to pay their electricity bills.

South Africa’s state-owned utility Eskom has also come under fire for frequent load shedding, which worsened in 2015 and involved hour-long outages, even in well-off suburban areas. Grid limitations in this area provide fertile ground for PV applications. As Brad Hatt, Assistant Branch Manager at Rubicon, the country’s largest PV distributor, explained to pv magazine at today’s Solar Show Africa exhibition, being left without power made the combination of PV and storage very compelling to these stranded South African households.

If you add to this mix the South African version of net metering available in some provinces, the case for solar PV becomes even more attractive. However, unlike most U.S. net metering incentives, which credit consumers at the same rate they pay utilities, the South African model provides for a reduced rate paid by the grid company.

This points to a fundamental fact in South Africa: the country’s PV market is not driven by subsidies. It has reached grid parity with conventional power sources and offers the promise of a less harmful form of grid independence. But even in its less innocuous form, grid independence for Africa’s powerless could become a lot better if initiatives like Power Africa can bring off-grid solar to millions of Africans who have never been served by any utility.