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Social Role of Photovoltaic Energy

Kerosene lamps and sore eyes were once routine elements of student homework assessment. Solar electricity changed that. Caroline Hombe, a 35-year-old teacher from rural Mhondoro, Zimbabwe, can wade through the pile of books stacked on her desk without worrying that the onset of darkness will end her work. African countries, blessed with year-round sunlight, are taking advantage of this source of clean, free energy to light remote and isolated homes that have no immediate hope of connecting to their national power grid.

“My eyes always hurt and my head hurt from the smoke,” Hombe told Africa Renewal. “Imagine trying to read a hundred exercise books in low light and smoke. The alternative was to schedule chores before sunset, but that meant I couldn't spend time with my two young children before bed, or prepare dinner early enough. Fortunately, this is now a headache of the past.”

The electrification of rural areas presents unique challenges for African governments. Remote and dispersed rural homes, unlike homes in urban areas, are expensive and often impractical to connect to the grid. Under the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD), countries are looking for innovative alternatives to give rural families efficient ways to cook their food and light their homes. Autonomous sources of energy such as solar, wind and mini-hydro generators can help fill the gap.

NEPAD, Africa's development plan, recognizes that to achieve desired social and economic prosperity, countries must increase access to cheaper and more reliable energy. Excluding South Africa and Egypt, no more than 20% (and in some countries only 5%) of Africans have electricity. This figure drops to an average of 2 percent in rural areas where most Africans live – a far cry from the consumption level of 35 percent or more that African leaders want to achieve.

"The sun is free"

The goal is quite achievable, says Mr. Garai Makokoro, director of the Institute of Energy Technology in Zimbabwe. Africa, after all, has some of the world's largest waterways (water potential) as well as some of the world's largest reserves of oil, coal and gas. The way to advance the NEPAD vision, he adds, is for countries to find cheaper energy sources, minimizing environmental risks and ensuring sustainability. The energy expert believes that clean, renewable solar energy fits the bill.

“African countries must think outside the box. The sun is free and inexhaustible. Solar technology – photovoltaic panels – converts the sun's radiation directly into electricity without pollution or damage to the environment. The panels can generate enough energy to power stoves, pump water, light clinics and power televisions. Africa has one of the best climates for this type of energy,” Makokoro told Africa Renewal.

But even with the advantages that solar energy offers, the Human Development Report, published by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), shows that most Africans still depend on less efficient traditional energy sources. Wood, or other biomass such as crop residues, is the dominant fuel for cooking. This comes at a huge cost to the environment, as families continue to cut down trees to get the fuel they need.

In the early 1990s, several villages turned to solar power in parts of Africa where one would least expect to find an oasis of lights shining in the dark night. Perhaps the most ambitious project of this nature, and one that is often cited, is a Zimbabwe project supported by UNDP through the Global Environment Facility (GEF). The initiative, jointly funded by the GEF ($7 million) and Zimbabwe ($400,000), has installed some 9,000 solar energy systems across the country in a bid to improve living standards but also reduce degradation and pollution. from the earth.

The River Estate near Shamva, 70 kilometers from the capital of Zimbabwe, Harare, has one of the best models of solar villas in the country. Fifty-two commercial farming families share systems, there is one system for every two households. Each family has two light bulbs and a connection for a radio or small television set. The new lighting systems improved the community's quality of life. They extended study hours for school-aged children, reduced rural-urban migration in the area, and improved health standards by electrifying a local health center.

Innovative financing

“For all their advantages, solar systems are not cheap to install,” says Mr. Jem Porcaro, analyst at UNDP's Energy and Environment Group. “A typical home system in sub-Saharan Africa costs between $500 and $1,000 and these systems typically provide enough power to light three to six rooms and power a black and white TV every night. But the cost is far beyond the means of most African families.”

Using innovative financing schemes such as fee-for-service agreements is one way to overcome these high upfront costs, notes Porcaro. Installing solar panels to power multiple homes at the same time can also reduce costs. More households could buy solar, the World Bank argues, if governments removed barriers, such as high import duties, that drive up the cost of panels. Regional cooperation to facilitate trade is another important objective of NEPAD.

African leaders are demonstrating a commitment to bringing solar energy to rural homes. For example, a UNDP-GEF report on solar financing and delivery models notes that private sales, through dealers, initially dominated the market in South Africa, but that the government, a major proponent of NEPAD, later initiated a massive off-grid effort that is now fully active. Angola, Botswana, Namibia, Swaziland, Zambia and most countries in the region have developed solar markets, in many cases with special funds to support consumer credit.

Boost companies

In addition to home use, people are taking advantage of solar energy to run small businesses. Businesswoman Abina Lungu operates a maize mill in Nyimba, eastern Zambia. With reliable solar power, he can work late into the night to fulfill all his customers' orders. Her house, next to the mill, is also lit by solar energy. Mr. Lungu is one of many residents served by Nyimba Energy Service Company (NESCO), a company funded by the Swedish International Development Agency. To power a home or store, NESCO installs a system that includes a panel, battery, charge controller, and power points. The cost is $33.33 including the contract fee. After that, consumers pay a monthly rental fee.

“I pay 30,000 kwacha [about US$6.25] as a rental fee every month to NESCO,” Lungu told Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN), a humanitarian news agency. “For me it is cheaper to use solar energy because paraffin is more expensive and even if the electricity reaches Nyimba, not all people will be connected.”

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