South Africa in 2012 recorded the world’s highest growth in renewable energy investment with $5.7 billion invested, according to the U.N. Environment Program, CNN reports.
The surge in investment, led largely by solar power projects, comes as South Africa moves to reduce its dependency on coal, which accounts for around 86 percent of its energy. To achieve that, the country has set the ambitious target of generating 18 gigawatts of clean energy by 2030, the report said.
Experts say investments in large-scale solar power projects could transform the continent, where rising populations and six of the world’s 10 fastest-growing economies have resulted in ever-growing energy deficits.
Investors included Google in its first foray into Africa’s solar power market. Google has spent more than $1 billion in renewable energy projects in the U.S. and Europe in recent years, announcing in late May its decision to back the Jasper Power Project, a 96-megwatt solar photovoltaic plant in South Africa’s Northern Cape, with a $12 million investment.
“We only pursue investments that we believe make financial sense,” said Rick Needham, Google’s director of energy and sustainability. “South Africa’s strong resources and supportive policies for renewable energy make it an attractive place to invest.”
Africa has plentiful sunshine but some of the world’s lowest electricity access rates, with more than half its countries experiencing daily power outages.
Eskom, South Africa’s giant public electricity utility, recently entered the arena of wind farming in a project financed by African and international institutions.
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Eskom generates 95 percent of the electricity used in South Africa and 45 percent of the electricity used in Africa, according to a Bizcommunity report.
While South Africa is clearly setting the pace, projects are being announced across the continent as more countries look to unlock their massive solar potential.
In April, Mauritania launched what’s described as Africa’s biggest solar plant so far, a 15-megawatt facility designed to account for 10 percent of the country’s energy capacity. In May, Morocco began the first phase of a 160-megawatt solar power plant as part of the country’s efforts to produce 2,000 megawatts of solar energy by 2020.
In 2012, British company Blue Energy announced plans to build the Nzema Project in Ghana, a 155-megawatt facility. Construction at the $400 million project is expected to begin in 2014.
As of 2009, coal, oil and gas together accounted for 81 percent of Africa’s total power generation in 2009, with nuclear power making up 2 perent (South Africa has the continent’s only nucealr power station), hydropower 16 percent and all other renewable sources accounting for just 1 percent, according to the International Energy Agency.
Lack of awareness about solar energy price competitiveness, lack of financing, and general inefficiency of power performance in Africa are some of the factors holding back African countries from developing solar power, experts say.
“The governments in Africa should change their attitude of thinking that solar is too expensive,” says Dickens Kamughisa, CEO of Uganda-based Africa Institute for Energy Governance.
For Africa to tap its clean energy potential, solar must take center stage in the continent’s energy discussions, said Mark Hankins, director of Kenya-based African Solar Designs.
“This means…using solar to address the energy sector needs for on and off grid and … using it to help business,” Hankins said. “Solar needs to be at the table, with all of the other technologies.”