BAMAKO - In South Africa, workers will soon begin construction of a new 100 megawatt solar power plant near the town of Pofadder. In Morocco, expansion of a giant solar power plant near the city of Ourzazate will soon increase its capacity to 580 megawatts. Solar energy has been slower to arrive in West Africa, but growth is underway.
West Africa’s largest solar power station was officially opened in November 2017. It’s at Zagtouli, on the outskirts of Burkina Faso’s capital Ouagadougou. It cost $55 million to build; the money came from France and the European Union. Zagtouli now delivers 30 megawatts to the national power grid.
Before Zagtouli, this was West Africa’s largest, at Bokhol, in Senegal. It opened in 2016, cost $30 million to build but the money story here is different.
Charlotte Aubin, founder and director of Greenwish, a renewable energy company, was closely involved. She helped create the first Independent Power Producer, or IPP, with money from Senegalese investors and an international fund backed by three European governments.
“The first project we did was in Senegal and it was a milestone for the continent as well as Greenwish," said Aubin. "It was the first solar IPP that came out of the ground in Sub-Saharan Africa. It’s now providing electricity to 160,000 people in Senegal at a 40 percent discount to the cost of the grid at the time.”
Forty percent less? How is that possible? Moussa Coulibaly, who runs Air Com, one of Mali’s oldest solar power companies, explains.
It’s the expansion of the technology, Coulibaly told VOA. The more people want a product, the cheaper it gets. Led by investment from the United States and China, the industry has been rapidly scaling up. Production costs have come down as a result. Coulibaly says he has seen the price of a solar panel reduced by more than 500 percent in Mali… in only twelve years. He says today, a solar panel will cost you CFA 50,000 — that’s about $90.
Something else has changed too in the region: the law. Until recently, independent power producers like Air Com and the Greenwish project could not exist. The law simply prohibited it. Senegal lifted the ban on non-state power production in 1998; Mali did it in 2000, while Burkina Faso legalized IPPs only last year.
Senegal now has four solar power stations. Burkina Faso is building two more. South Africa and Morocco have dozens each. And the list is getting longer: Kenya, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Ghana, Mauritania…
At nighttime, an estimated 600 million Africans still use candles and kerosene lamps to light their homes. Many live in the continent’s vast rural zones. How do you get all those millions connected?
Charlotte Aubin has an idea that would use existing structures — telephone towers.
"There are about 240,000 towers that are off-grid or bad grid that could benefit from clean tech solution… but we are also looking at doing more for [the] population."
Interest in off-grid solar is booming in West Africa. Companies like Air Com in Mali build small local grids, tailor-made for the communities they serve.
Coulibaly says we make an estimate of the electricity needs of a particular village — now and in the future. And then we build an independent local solar-powered grid based on those estimates.
It’s true: solar alone will not be enough to fulfill Africa’s energy needs. But for private power producers and small independent off-grid networks, the future looks bright.