The UN has said that investing in solar energy could bring electricity to millions in Senegal, significantly reduce electricity bills and attract millions of dollars in development funding under the UN Clean Development Mechanism – but only with increased investor participation.

Rising fuel costs have increased the attractiveness of solar and “If you reduce these [fuel] oil import costs it will do a tremendous amount to save money for government investment in schools, hospitals and other development activities to help the poor.” said UN Environmental programme spokesperson, Nick Nuttall.

With only one in four Senegalese having access to grid electricity, Senegal must now invest in renewable energy.  

According to Louis Seck, head of Senegal’s renewable energy department, the country has seen a fivefold increase in its fuel bill between 2005 and 2008.

“Research suggests that by tapping into just a small section of the solar energy resources of the Sahara desert, you could theoretically produce enough energy to fuel the entire planet,” said Nuttall.

Senegal gets 3 000 hours of sunshine a year and if solar power stations can be set up on uncultivable land, Senegal would be “an ideal location for solar energy development”, Nuttall continued.

According to Nuttal, solar is an easy way to provide off grid access to electricity.  

Abdoulaye Fall, head of environmental quality and safety at the National Confederation of Employers in Senegal (CNES), said solar power could save money in the long term.  It has been estimated that the cost of producing 1 Kw hour of electricity from solar can be halved from the current US$18.40 for conventional generation.

However, the biggest challenge facing the wide scale roll out of solar projects is that most projects are expensive, and the government needs more money.  It has not been easy to attract private investors at anywhere near a large enough scale said Seck, due to perceptions that Senegal is too risky a place to invest.  Investing directly in renewable schemes is an “unattractive” prospect, according to Seck, because of its large debt burdens, its poor equipment and outdated infrastructure, and heavy government involvement.

Legislators from across West Africa came together in Ghana in late September 2008 to urge regional leaders to form a West African Renewable Energy Community to promote renewable energy projects. They also agreed to push leaders across the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) to pass stronger laws to protect investors in renewable energy schemes.