Every year, solar industry leaders and key decision-makers in Africa's energy sector hold the Africa Energy Forum (AEF), dedicated to power infrastructure projects on the continent. International investors converge to discuss energy matters, as they share their interests and outlook in funding projects to supply the massive demand for power in Africa.
AEF 2020 kicked off on October 20 and will continue through Friday. The 24-day digital platform delivers critical information on the solar industry. pv magazine tuned in to three events to learn more about current challenges and opportunities and to hear about key lessons learned from Africa's leading solar adopters; namely, South Africa, Morocco and Egypt. The events attended were ‘digital dialogue: advancing mega-solar on the continent,' held on October 29; ‘solar disruption in Africa: how solar technologies and applications will change the continent,' held on October 30; and ‘digitalisation and solar in emerging markets,' held on November 3.
The most ‘solar rich’ continent
According to panel moderator Daniel Schroth – acting director for renewable energy and energy efficiency at the African Development Bank – Africa is the most solar rich continent in the world.
However, despite an increase in installed solar capacity, from under 300 MW in 2011 to around 6 GW in 2018, PV supplies just 1% of the continent's energy mix. Furthermore, the bulk of installed solar capacity is concentrated in South Africa and the North African nations, leaving the rest of sub-Saharan Africa under-served.
As investors and industry leaders anticipate substantial growth in Africa’s solar PV market, many issues were discussed, including the challenges posed by policy making, constrained procurement processes, and the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic. Emerging trends, such as solar digitization, were also proposed as a method of boosting solar adoption in sub-Saharan Africa.
Nambuya Imbega, Trina Solar regional sales manager for the Middle East and Africa, commented on the continent's uneven solar capacity development trends. Of the 1.067 GW of newly installed PV capacity in 2018, Egypt added around 581 MW and South Africa added approximately 373 MW, to reach a capacity of 2.5 GW – the largest volume of operational installed solar capacity in Africa that year.
Imbega said Trina is optimistic about growing solar power applications on the continent which will open a pool of investment opportunities. One promising market is in e-mobility, where Africa is witnessing a rise in the number of electric motorbikes and cars on roads. Investors are finding ways to penetrate the market and offer the necessary smart energy solutions by, for instance, setting up solar-powered charging stations, said the sales manager.
Where is the African solar market headed?
Solar utilities are finding it difficult to access large clean power consumer markets in west and East Africa, with consumer behavior driving most African solar trends, along with the need to expedite solar infrastructure development.
According to Mark Davis – executive VP for clean energy at Norfund, the Norwegian bilateral development finance institution – Africa is slowly adopting a competitive auction mechanism for large scale solar power development and shifting away from feed-in tariff regimes. Regular auctions ensure governments have a continual program to procure new generation capacity which gives the market confidence, said Davis, who added, the system also creates a long-term market, including by boosting investor confidence.
From a broader perspective, many speakers who attended the digital solar event believed Africa will see more ‘mega solar' projects, in the 100-500 MW range. Results from a survey conducted during the show confirmed that feeling.
One of the key projects that has inspired that projected trend is the 1.8 GW Benban solar park in Egypt, where Scatec Solar was among the developers. According to Morten Langsholdt, senior VP of business development at the Norwegian company, Benban should serve as a benchmark for the continent's large scale solar. The 400 MW of solar plants already installed at the park remains a landmark achievement, said Langsholdt, demonstrating vision and political will. “The ability to work together and get everyone involved in the ownership of the envisioned goals was a great contributing factor to the success of this project,” added the Scatec representative.
Solar digitalization was another key topic addressed at the 2020 AEF, particularly with respect to the potential it has to drive solar deployment in sub-Saharan Africa. Digitalization has the potential to transform the way utilities run operations, with emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence, data analytics, cloud computing, and the internet of things rapidly helping replace old, ineffective systems.
Using such modern tools, utilities can remotely monitor assets and leverage data to drive insights which can be used to make timely decisions and improve operational performance, from both a maintenance and service perspective.
According to Jörg Althaus, regional field manager for Germany, India, the Middle East and Africa at German testing organization TÜV Rheinland, drones are rapidly being deployed to supervise solar power plants. “Drones can easily count modules and measure the depth of the cable trenches etc, and the developer team can use real-time knowledge of how advanced the project is going,” said Althaus.
Challenges for solar growth and possible solutions
One of the biggest challenges facing the African solar market, according to Norfund’s Davis, is the fact governments are not enabling utilities to become financially viable. Too much pressure on price, and lower efficiencies in such organizations, can affect repayment rates, leading to high losses, said Davis. Pay-as-you-go companies, for example, typically focus on selling units to new customers and not so much on customers repaying loans. Not being in a position to enforce the collection of unsettled solar loans could severely affect such companies.
As Davis put it: “There's a lot of issues in the utility sector in Africa which then impact the ability to attract investment into the generation business.” While he advocates for financial viability and amendment of government regulations, he said the problem has been there for years and he does not see it being solved any time soon.
A lack of transparency in procurement processes and lower bankability of solar projects were identified as further issues. However, as in any other sector, challenges are inevitable. Working on the right credit enhancements, risk mitigation and a well-structured procurement process will overcome many of the hurdles. Governments should also review policy to enable emerging utilities to sustain operations and minimize losses.
The partial risk guarantee (PRG) program, introduced in 2004 by the African Development Bank and designed to catalyze private investment in middle-income sectors, is a useful instrument to cushion utilities from contractual breaches and political risks. Davis emphasized the PRG program's role in focusing governments on honoring contracts. However, he said he thinks that is not a long-term solution. “It's something we can use now to make our projects bankable but I think there's a deeper reform required in the utility business if we're really going to promote this thing going at a greater scale,” he said.
The high cost of energy storage was another issue said to be affecting solar development. However, according to Peter Lilienthal – chief executive of U.S. distributed-generation and microgrid modeling software company Homer Energy – the cost of solar storage is expected to drop in the coming years as cheaper and more compact technologies emerge.
The coronavirus pandemic has also presented challenges which will affect the sector over the next couple of years. It has led to shutdowns of various projects and to governments changing priorities to focus on slowing the spread of Covid-19. Authorities across Africa are now uncertain about the new solar capacity they will require, which could be a stumbling block to the industry's recovery efforts.
Despite the uncertainty, though, South Africa remains a promising solar power hub. The country has two solar projects set to run parallel: an 11.81 GW power generation capacity project and the 2 GW risk-mitigation generation capacity which opened in August. The 11.81 GW project comprises 6.4 GW of solar, 513 MW of storage, 3 GW of gas and 1.5 GW of coal-fired power. The risk mitigation project was launched using a tech-neutral procurement package that will see solar among the competing technologies.
Some of the key takeaways from the forum included the need to elevate solar projects in sub-Saharan African by boosting political will and focusing on agile solutions that span technologies including solar, hydro, wind and energy storage.
Fixing the distribution business, setting up a transparent procurement process, adopting auction systems, and working on a healthy utility sector were the other ‘pain points' that, if addressed, would make life easier for everyone involved in the industry.
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