The “rainbow nation” lets the sun shine in
Virtually nowhere in the world is access to electricity as low as in Africa. Yet, virtually nowhere offers the same wealth of non-polluting renewable energy sources as what was once called “the dark continent.”
Electrification rates range from almost 100 percent in Egypt down, shockingly, to just 9 percent in Uganda. Even South Africa, one of the continent’s most developed nations, takes electric power to only 75 percent of its people. Worryingly, the hunger for power will rise sharply: average gross domestic product for Africa is expected to outpace the world average in next few years, with both industry and households craving more electricity. Just think about all those mines alone: Africa’s remarkable mineral resources account for almost one third of the world’s reserves; less well known, the continent is expected to account for 13 percent of global oil production by 2015.
At first glance, the environmental consequences of meeting such massive demands seem horrendous – especially if all the new generating capacity is based on fossil fuels, adding to greenhouse gas emissions and contributing to global warming and climate change.
But Africa has significant alternatives: extensive river systems offer big opportunities for hydro electric power. More promising still is the largely untapped potential of the sun. Photovoltaic (PV) systems already operate in some places, notably South Africa. The “Rainbow Nation” has an ambitious government program for renewables to help meet its bold target of adding 52GW of new generating capacity in the next 20 years. As it stands now, nearly 90 percent of South Africa’s electricity comes from readily available coal, which spews out greenhouse gases; nuclear accounts for just 5 to 10 percent, while renewables amount to a mere 1 percent.
But the scene is changing fast, thanks to massive new investment. Last December, for example, ABB won contracts worth $225m to boost renewables targets with two big turnkey PV plants in northern Limpopo province. The two sites will be among the first large units built in the opening phase of the government’s long term renewable energy program.
This month, ABB went a step further with the decision to start production in South Africa of solar inverters, the “heart and brain” of the every PV system.
ABB is betting big on inverters, and PV in general. Last month, ABB announced plans to spend just over $1bn to buy the U.S. based Power-One, the world’s second biggest solar inverter maker.
Starting local production in South Africa of inverters of up to 1,000KW from next year is a sign of ABB’s commitment to solar, and we anticipate significant potential both locally and from neighboring African countries. South Africa will become the fourth production site for inverters after Estonia, India and China, and reinforce its position as a springboard for ambitions to gain an ever bigger piece of the African action.
The region’s energy needs are set to grow with economic expansion, and South Africa is looking to benefit from its abundance of sunshine.
Well then, it’s time to let the sun shine in …..