No bifacial solar in West Africa? That’s likely to change soon


A webinar about technological developments in the PV industry has presented mixed views about the prospects of bifacial solar projects in Africa.

Maxime Bureau, chief operating officer of French developer Africa Ren, told the event – organized by trade body the Africa Solar Industry Association (AFSIA) – she understood no bifacial projects have yet been installed in West Africa, because lenders feel the technology is not sufficiently mature.

However Emeka Wosu, global business development manager for Chinese manufacturer Longi Solar, said the technology is fast gaining ground on the continent, following a pattern observed in other global markets. “In 2019, bifacial projects represented around 14% of the global market and in a year or so, we expect it to hit the 50% mark,” said Wosu. “So, this technology is growing significantly. For instance, nearly all the projects in South Africa are now going bifacial.”


Anthony Erasmus, advisory account manager for Huawei South Africa agreed, and said: “A significant portion of upcoming pipelines, not only in Africa but all across the world, is now bifacial. This is a trend we've seen from the past year or so, and projects that were originally designed to be monofacial are now shifting or adding more bifacial modules. And since you cannot install bifacial modules on fixed systems, the use of trackers is growing significantly.”

Erasmus highlighted the importance of security and privacy in PV projects among the key tech trends likely to emerge up to 2025 and the Huawei representative appeared to cast doubt on the employment benefits of the energy transition by predicting 80% of PV project operations and processes – from panel inspection to cleaning – are likely to be automated by that date. That opinion conflicts with the many reports published by renewable energy advocates about the job creation benefits solar could offer in areas likely to suffer widespread unemployment as a result of the exit from coal-fired power.

With the deployment of artificial intelligence technology by companies such as Chinese telecoms company Huawei enabling ongoing, autonomous improvement of PV systems, Erasmus also predicted increasingly flexible, smart solar projects would switch from being ‘grid-following' infrastructure to a grid-supporting role.

Power density

The account manager also forecast inverter makers, including his employer, would use the rapid development of new materials – as well as heat dissipation and engineering technologies – to ramp up the power density of their products by the middle of the decade, further reducing the levelized cost of energy produced by solar plants.

The pros and cons of the new generation of large, high-output solar modules were among the subjects discussed at the AFSIA event, with Francisco Estela – technical director of global business development at Longi – extolling the benefits of his company's Hi-MO5 ultra-high-power product.

The Hi-MO5 features 182mm wafers and Estela told the webinar his company's product had a more mature design than 210mm-wafer-based modules. The Longi representative said products based on the larger wafers pose a high failure risk due to a low safety margin of 1%, and claimed the 182mm Hi-MO5, with its single diode, has better junction temperature and thermal runaway properties than 166mm-wafer-based alternatives.

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The main selling point of the slew of physically larger, high-powered solar modules which emerged out of China last year, said Estela, is that reducing the number of panels needed to generate a fixed volume of electricity reduces balance-of-system project costs including installation and construction, cable wiring, and tracker construction.

Hemanshu Sugandhi, director of business development at U.S. solar tracker company Nextracker, discussed the importance of data to the cost-effective maintenance of large scale solar projects.

Projects should feature a strategy to capture, monitor and use data, which can inform module location and analyze irradiance and tracker-angle heat maps, said Sugandhi. For example, Flex-owned Nextracker, he said, collects “more than 13” data points from the 350,000 or so trackers it has hooked up to its data management system around the world, every five minutes. “There's a lot of data we get and we use machine learning algorithms to figure [out] trends and digital signatures, which allows us to analyze what's happening in the field and take the necessary actions to avoid potential issues,” added Sugandhi.

Wind prediction

With the most advanced trackers able to predict the speed, direction and duration of storms, the Nextracker director said, considering prevailing wind site conditions can increase module stability and reduce micro-cracking and pressure on the panels.

Africa Ren's Bureau, who had remarked upon the absence of bifacial facilities in West Africa, said similar concerns about tech maturity ensured the promise offered by floating solar is yet to be realized across the continent.

With string inverters and energy storage among the other new technologies available to African developers – and trackers gaining popularity in markets further from the equator – Bureau said reliability statistics and warranties are helping drive the roll-out of high-powered modules across the continent.

That was a point emphasized by Longi's Wosu too, who described such product guarantees as “necessary to ensure confidence and secure the financial backing from … lenders and IPPs [independent power producers].”

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