Africa taps solar energy for a brighter future | Global Ideas | DW | 18.02.2010
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Africa taps solar energy for a brighter future

Africa's abundance of sunshine makes it a potentially major player in the production of solar energy. The clean technology can help curb climate change as well as offer the continent a chance to fight poverty.

A solar thermal power plant in Jülich, Germany

Solar energy could help lift Africa out of poverty

Africa is often associated with scarcity, whether it's of food, education or wealth. But there's one thing that the continent has in plentiful supply: sunshine.

Today, scientists, environmentalists and aid workers all agree that solar-powered energy has the potential to transform Africa and help lift it out of poverty.

Number crunching

The International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates that the sun strikes the surface of the earth at the rate of more than 120,000 terawatts. That's equivalent to the performance of 100 million large nuclear power plants. The sunshine amounts to 7,700 times the entire global energy demand in 2006.

The Sahara desert

The vast Sahara desert holds immense potential for solar power

Africa offers particularly good conditions for harnessing solar power thanks to extremely high sunlight radiation levels in many African countries.

The environmental protection group Greenpeace estimates that solar power plants concentrated on just two percent of the surface of the Sahara desert could meet the world's current energy needs.

High costs the main obstacle

Given all the potential, what's holding back the continent's rise as a major producer of solar energy?

Experts say that the huge costs involved in installing solar plants - whether it's photovoltaic systems or solar thermal plants - are the main hindrance.

Frank Asbeck, CEO of Bonn-based photovoltaic product manufacturer SolarWorld AG, says that solar plants involve large initial investments even though the electricity generated thereafter is almost free.

On the other hand, investors in conventional energy means such as kerosene and diesel pay much more for the same amount of electricity. However, the investments are often spread out over smaller amounts.

Asbeck says that's why poorer nations in particular often tend to give priority to building polluting conventional power plants.

Greenpeace has thus urged industrialized nations, especially in Europe, to create stronger political and financial instruments to help solar technology get off the ground in Africa.

The organization uses the example of the German government, which invests 8 million euros ($11 million) for research in solar thermal technology. But that's a minor sum compared with the 130 million euros spent on nuclear power research yearly.

A solar power plant in Portugal

Experts say Europe needs to help Africa with solar technology

Andreas Böhling, energy expert at Greenpeace, says that building solar power plants in Africa could go a long way toward spreading the use of renewable energy.

"Germany may not be reliant on solar imports from Africa. But in the face of massive climate and energy problems, we must quickly move away from fossil fuels such as coal and gas - as well as nuclear power - and towards renewable energy," he said.

Technology in place

A lack of money and political will may be hampering the wide use of renewable energy. But technology certainly isn't.

Experts say that setting up solar thermal plants or photovoltaic systems in Africa is not as difficult as it sounds.

"Nowadays Egypt, Morocco, Libya and other countries in North Africa have modern gas and oil plants which meet the electricity needs of these countries," Robert Pitz-Paal, solar researcher at the German Aerospace Center (DLR), said.

"And comparatively, solar thermal plants or photovoltaic systems don't involve complicated technology. It's certainly not a challenge technologically."

The DLR has been working with several organizations on setting up a network of solar thermal plants in Africa. Called "Desertec," the project aims to supply Europe with solar energy from the deserts of North Africa.

Clean and environment-friendly

A move away from polluting power plants to solar energy systems would go a long way toward mitigating climate change.

An aerial view of a vast solar plant in the the Mojave desert in California

An aerial view of a vast solar plant in the the Mojave desert in California

A study by Greenpeace shows that solar thermal plants, such as those planned on the scale of the "Desertec" project, could slash carbon dioxide emissions by 4.7 billion tons by 2050.

The reduction is equivalent to six times the current volume of Germany's carbon dioxide emissions.

What's in it for Africa?

Generating electricity through solar power could also be the solution to many of Africa's problems.

More than half a billion people on the continent are estimated to live without electricity. That has hampered economic development.

It has also led to higher production costs, crippling the competitiveness of several African nations on the global market.

Affordable electricity would lead to better health care, communication technologies, information and education. And it would create more competitive factories, experts say.

The time factor

So, when would Africa be ready to be a supplier of clean solar electricity - for itself and for others?

Energy expert Boehling says it could be as soon as in ten years.

But solar researcher Pitz-Paal is more cautious. He believes it will be more than two decades before Germans can power their homes with clean energy from Africa.

Author: Martin Schrader (sp)

Editor: Jennifer Abramsohn

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