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Bright sun, bright future: Can Africa unlock its solar potential?

By Teo Kermeliotis for CNN | 8/29/2013, 10:29 a.m.
Which country boasts the world's fastest growing clean energy investment? Germany? No. United States? Think again.

Obstacles

Yet, despite such ambitious schemes, experts say the continent is far from exploiting its massive solar energy potential. According to the International Energy Agency, coal, oil and gas together accounted for 81% of Africa's total power generation in 2009, with nuclear power making up 2%, hydropower 16% and all other renewable sources accounting for just 1%.

Wouters says that a lack of awareness about the current price competitiveness of solar technology, coupled with wider inefficiencies in the performance of most power utilities across the continent, is preventing African countries from scaling up their solar energy production.

Another problem is financing, as higher up-front capital costs, longer payback periods and a lack of solar-project experience in the banking sector make access to funds more challenging.

"You need to involve banks and for many banks in Africa this is also new, so again you have to raise awareness," says Wouters. "Money typically comes with a risk premium which makes it more expensive than necessary."

Actions

Others say, however, that it's inadequate policies and a lack of political commitment that prevent solar from taking off.

"The governments in Africa should change their attitude of thinking that solar is too expensive," says Dickens Kamughisa, chief executive of Uganda-based NGO Africa Institute for Energy Governance. "Every decision should be based on research that can help in allocating the energy budgets."

Last year, a UNEP report said that Africa's power sector needs to install an estimated 7,000 MW of new generation capacity each year. It warned that "unless stronger commitments and effective policy measures are taken to reverse current trends," half the population of sub-Saharan Africa will be without electricity in 2030.

Mark Hankins, director of Kenya-based African Solar Designs, says that in order for Africa to tap its clean energy potential, solar must take center stage in the continent's energy discussions.

"There needs to be a serious reassessment of how to do policy and finance to help solar meet its potential in Africa," says Hankins. "This means not just addressing the needs of poor people -- it means using solar to address the energy sector needs for on and off grid and ... using it to help business," he adds. "Solar needs to be at the table, with all of the other technologies."

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