Solar PV can play a key role in tackling Africa's energy crisis
India’s solar market looks promising after positive Q3, states new research. Image: Pixabay.

“Solar PV can play a valuable role in alleviating the South African electricity crisis whether via utility-scale or distributed investments in solar PV and other technologies…” according to Dr Jarrad Wright, Principal Researcher at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR).

With many African countries struggling to keep up with the energy consumption demands of its citizens, the argument for a move away from unreliable coal-fired power stations has never been greater.

This has left many African countries scrambling to adopt more integrated energy supply and demand systems across the board, with smart technologies, partnering with Independent Power Producers (IPPs), rigorous planning and holistic decision-making.

Speaking at the leading solar and energy storage event in Africa – Solar Power Africa, Dr Wright said solar PV can play a valuable role in alleviating the South African electricity crisis whether via utility-scale or distributed investments in solar PV and other technologies to assist in ensuring adequate power systems and driving electricity access. 

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Wright explains that similar principles can be applied to the rest of the African region, to ensure sufficient supply to meet every-increasing energy demands. “This is where solar PV should likely play a significant role, considering the lead-time for investment, technology cost reductions, availability of favourable financing, and it’s ability scale up and down.”

He pointed out though that to solve Africa’s energy challenges, it goes beyond just the technologies. “Key to solving the energy crisis is ensuring that enabling policies and regulations are developed with a focused and committed approach to implementation of projects.”

While steps have been taken, like that of the South African Department of Mineral Resources and Energy (DMRE) gazetting new regulations outlining a commitment to sourcing over 11,800MW of power from IPPs over the next decade, there have also been calls towards giving greater independence to municipalities to produce or procure power directly from IPPs.

Amendments to regulation

In May of this year, draft amendments to the Electricity Regulations Act on New Generation Capacity were published proposing a conducive regulatory framework to allow this to happen for municipalities that have a good financial standing. At the time, however, greater clarification was needed – something that both municipalities like the City of Cape Town as well as industry players like South African Photovoltaic Industry Association (SAPVIA) sought clarity on.

With bouts of loadshedding and South Africa being unable to keep up with the demand, major municipalities like the City of Cape Town have argued for municipalities to have the authority to produce or procure their own power.  

This action was noted by President Cyril Ramaphosa, who in his recent address on his Economic Reconstruction and Recovery Plan said that applications for own-use generation projects are being fast-tracked.

The efforts are slowly starting to yield results, at least for municipalities like City of Cape Town and the City of Ekurhuleni who would potentially be able to go ahead subject to the municipalities complying with various requirements and receiving approval from the Minister of Mineral Resources and Energy based on recent court rulings.

What would make this work is not just municipalities being able to procure their own power through IPPs, but also through the development of regulatory frameworks and policies that aim to encourage greater Small Scale Embedded Generation (SSEG) across the public, private and residential sector – with the ultimate aim of being able to feed electricity into municipal grids.

As far as the choice for renewable energy sources go, solar PV energy is a no brainer. According to the International Energy Agency’s World Energy Outlook 2020, the world’s best solar power schemes now offer the cheapest electricity in history.

“Over the last two decades, solar PV costs have declined dramatically thanks to the combination of technology cost declines, efficiency improvements and governments across the world boosting clean-power targets combined with enabling policies and legislation as they seek to combat climate change,” Dr Wright adds.

Benefits of renewables for cities

In a report published by the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) it detailed the numerous benefits that renewables have for cities, from cleaner air, improved living spaces and an increase in modern services.

The report acknowledges that most cities are largely bound by national frameworks and infrastructure systems. But it highlighted what we are seeing in South Africa – through effective cooperation and coordination of policies and initiatives between different levels of governance it can enable change at the local level. The results can lead to the unlocking of finance, capacity building and technical support, data, as well as supporting the creation of new mandates to accelerate the transition to a sustainable energy future.

Focusing on enhancing the uptake and localisation of solar PV, Dr Wright is one of the key speakers at the virtual Solar Power Africa event, taking place from 16 – 20 November 2020.