Mark Hankins, Director, African Solar Designs
April 03, 2013 | 18 Comments
Neither has the aid community helped build the real solar energy sectors seen elsewhere. While a multi-billion dollar solar “party” rages in the north, and in places such as UK, Germany, California and Italy potential solar buyers have access to subsidies, feed-in tariffs, tax holidays and low interest loans, in Africa solar is for the poor. Since Rio in 1992, for Africa renewables have been about energy access for off-grid communities. Donor investments from groups like the Global Environment Facility and bilateral agencies have been to increase energy access with renewables. The message is paradoxical – in Europe, solar is for the green-minded middle class and rich. In Africa, solar is for disenfranchised communities in distant off-grid counties.
To a city-based middle class African, the array of off-grid solar powered lighting gadgets, often marketed by well-meaning and well-funded “social entrepreneurs” look a lot like toys. Yes, perhaps something to take home to the village over Christmas, but not something that would be of interest to a city-based African.
And here’s the rub: even though today, most Africans have limited access to electricity – 70 percent or more of all Africa – the people that are starting businesses, creating opportunities, growing economies and using the bulk of the country’s generated power are the urban middle classes. So, while donors and social entrepreneurs smugly trundle renewables to distant rural communities, in the big towns electricity is increasing unsustainable and dirty. The very city-based NGO workers and aid agencies that speak of green and clean energy for the poor, sit in CO2 spewing traffic jams and use hundreds of times more power than their pico-solar gadgets can generate.
So, while no one can legitimately criticize the intentions of aid-focused attempts to help replace the poor person’s kerosene burden, there is a glaring fallacy in the rhetoric. Where is the power for the NGO office computers coming from, and where is the power that runs the town coming from? In the big picture, a day in the dirty-energy life of Nairobi discharges more emissions that a week in a hundred rural communities.
The point of this article is not to bash the use of solar energy for rural access. It is a vital part of rural electrification in many countries. It changes lives. It has also been the starting point for solar industries. However, off-grid solar power is a dead end. Asking major solar companies to get involved in pico-and small-scale solar work is like asking automobile manufacturers to get involved in bicycle production and marketing. It will not happen – the products are very different.
How We Can Move Solar Forward
If Africa wants to attract more investment in solar, it has to increase solar demand twenty fold. And this will only occur when, as has happened everywhere else, programs are developed to bring solar on-grid and to greatly increase demand for solar.
First we need to change the ownership of the energy discussion. It is not about poor people’s energy access — it is about green power period. In the same way that Biko’s Black Consciousness movement preceded real moves to Black Empowerment, there must be a Green Consciousness movement in Africa to push for environmentally-sound energy strategies. Whether the big-power, petroleum and coal-fuelled status quo is kept in place by ignorance, inertia or greed, it will not step aside voluntarily. As was the case in the US and Europe, neither will old interests leave the corridors of power in Africa. A green-minded civil society must demand mainstream green power in Africa. This is not something that will be given to Africa by donor agencies, social entrepreneurs or missionaries. It is something that Africans themselves must achieve through discourse and political struggle.
It will be the educated middle classes — not the rural poor — that help consolidate moves to greener energy. They are the ones that are using resources, investing, deciding the direction that the country moves in. Sure, in a real democracy there are many voices, but ask yourself how many of the million solar systems in Germany are owned by poor people.
Companies that sell solar in Africa need to act like “real” companies and recognize that the rapidly growing urban middle class is a viable market. They use electricity, they are keen, they would like to be green and they would like to be empowered. This is a growing market that requires investment — and policy framework — to open up.
Secondly, there is a need to do the hard work of re-writing policies, framing enabling environments, drafting regulations and building up capacities of companies to manage the use of solar energy. Whereas energy access for the poor often requires small artisanal businesses, large solar projects require engineers, financers and even lawyers.
Finally, there is a need to re-think how local and international incentives can build solar markets. It is a complicated discussion. The question of energy access will remain central – because providing access to those without power is about political equity and a problem to be resolved. But at the same time, solar energy sectors must be built — in the same way electricity sectors have been built in the past through large investments in dams, coal stations, geothermal wells and transmission infrastructure. Solar must have its place at the table, with all of the other important generation technologies.
We are, slowly, getting there. South Africa is now installing hundreds of megawatts of solar PV capacity. Kenya is developing grid connected regulations, and will have more than a dozen net-metered grid-connect systems by the end of 2013. Tanzania, Ghana, Cape Verde, Botswana, Namibia and Uganda all have ambitious plans for solar. But there is so much more to do!
Mark Hankins has worked in as a trainer, project manager and advocate for solar in Africa for over 20 years.