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Solar Still Less Than 2% Of East Africa’s Electricity Mix Despite Having Some Of The Highest Technical Potential On The Continent

East Africa has some of the highest potential for solar PV on the African continent. A study by IRENA puts East Africa ahead of other regions on the continent with a potential of 220 petawatt-hours (PWh) per annum for solar PV. Southern Africa has the next highest potential, estimated to be around 160 PWh. The analysis was based on Geographic Information Systems (GIS) data mainly calculated from renewable energy resource maps, available meteorological data, and other geographic information including land cover, land use, and topographical maps.

In order to come up with the closest possible estimate of the technical potential of large scale solar PV, the study says some of the general exclusion parameters included:

  • Cities and urban areas
  • Protected areas
  • Waterbodies and wetlands
  • Sloped areas (slopes greater than 45 degrees were excluded)
  • Traditional agricultural lands
  • Forest areas

Other factors considered in exclusions are costs to integrate the renewable energy resources to the grid and therefore, areas that are further than 200 km from the nearest city, i.e. extremely remote areas that would be associated with very high transmission costs for large renewable electricity systems, were excluded.

Despite all this potential in East Africa, solar still contributes less than 2% of East Africa’s electricity mix. Hydro leads the way at about 54% and hydro’s share is still growing significantly, followed by natural gas at about 14%, then geothermal at about 12%. Hydropower contributes over 80% of the electricity generation mix in Ethiopia and Uganda. Ethiopia will soon have even more hydro with the phased implementation of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam which will contribute over 5,000 MW when completed. Tanzania is also adding about 2,000 MW with the new Julius Nyerere Hydropower Station.

East Africa’s Electricity Generation Mix, redrawn from IRENA’s Renewable Energy Market Analysis: Africa and its Regions Report, January 2022

As the focus shifts to decarbonize global energy systems, variable renewable energy sources, such as solar, are poised to play a key role. Could East Africa’s significant hydropower plants and resources help drive the adoption of solar PV? These hydro power plants could help balance the variable output of solar through simultaneous ramp-up or decreasing hydro power output in real-time to help keep a steady power supply to meet demand. However, several barriers to the adoption of large scale solar plants have been identified and would need to be overcome. These include:

  • Low overall installed grid capacity in most East Africa, which means a low saturation for intermittent renewables
  • Transmission and distribution insufficiency — most countries have weak, poorly maintained networks, and limited footprint of T&D networks, which limit grid flexibility
  • Limited financing
  • Several utilities in the regions are under fiscal stress, therefore not considered to be creditworthy
  • Regulatory deficiencies

A lot of markets on the continent are also characterized by low or no reserve margins. This means that these countries are therefore forced to implement load-shedding due to inadequate electricity generation capacity. This lack of reserve margins limits the growth of utility scale solar PV without energy storage. The high penetration of hydropower in East Africa could help mitigate this through pumped storage and other services.

Let’s hope we start to see more large scale solar PV projects to help increase the penetration of solar in the region as well as adding some more diversity to the energy mix. Climate change-induced droughts are now more frequent, which puts a strain on the grid during the periods when water levels are low. Adding solar PV could help manage crucial water resources.

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Remeredzai Joseph Kuhudzai has been fascinated with batteries since he was in primary school. As part of his High School Physics class he had to choose an elective course. He picked the renewable energy course and he has been hooked ever since. At university he continued to explore materials with applications in the energy space and ending up doing a PhD involving the study of radiation damage in High Temperature Gas Cooled Nuclear Reactors. He has since transitioned to work in the Solar and Storage industry and his love for batteries has driven him to obsess about electric vehicles.


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