Why West Africa is Investing in Solar Energy

The need for long-term energy system planning is now more pressing than ever.

Several governments in West Africa have taken measures to reach ambitious solar power goals within the next decade. This past week, the Government of Côte d’Ivoire, through its Ministry of Petroleum, Energy and Renewable Energies (MPEER) has launched a  Request For Prequalification (RFQ) for the construction of two Photovoltaic solar power plants with a combined capacity of 60 MW in order to further explore solar energy as an way to meet growing electricity demand. To put that in perspective, the West African nation had just 13 MW of installed PV capacity at the end of 2020, according to the International Renewable Energy Agency. This is good news for the entire region, as Cote d’Ivoire has West Africa’s third largest electrical system after Nigeria and Ghana,  and supplies electricity to six neighbouring countries.  These new plants will be constructed in the cities of Laboa and Touba, which are located in the northeastern part of the country.

The year 2021 likewise saw the inauguration of at the time West Africa's biggest solar power plant  in Zagtouli , Burkina Faso The 135 acre plant at on the outskirts of the capital Ouagadougou churning out 33 megawatts -- enough to power tens of thousands of homes. The plant is one step towards the West African nation’s goal of reaching 200 MW by the end of 2021.

This record was soon displaced by Togo in June of 2021 as the nation launched the now largest solar plant in West Africa, some 250 km north of capital city Lomé. Located in central Togo, this 50 megawatt facility will provide power to more than 158,000 households and save more than one million tons of CO2 emissions. Togo, which imports more than half of its energy from Nigeria and Ghana, is banking on solar power to develop access to electricity for its eight million residents. By the end of the year, officials hope the 127,344 solar panels will produce 90.255 megawatt hours of power per year.  Capacity for an additional 20 MW is scheduled to be built on the same site by the end of the year.

Earlier this year, Benin also secured a $21.1 million loan from the ECOWAS development bank to build solar arrays.

What is a Photovoltaic solar power plant?

With all these countries implementing Photovoltaic solutions, one might ask themselves, “What exactly is a photovoltaic solar power plant?” A solar power plant is a facility that converts sunlight into electricity. Photovoltaic power plants use large areas of photovoltaic cells made from silicon alloys to convert sunlight directly into usable electricity. When photons from sunlight hit the semiconductor material, free electrons are generated which can then flow through the material to produce a direct electrical current.

PV panels are distinct from other solar power plants as they produce electricity directly, without the need for other processes or devices. For example, they do not use a liquid heat-carrying agent, like water, as in solar thermal plants.

PV panels do not concentrate energy, they simply convert photons into electricity .

Other types of solar power plants include Solar thermal power plants, solar dishes, and solar engines, which in contrast generate electricity indirectly by using tools such as mirrors to focus the sun's energy onto a collector, or use a liquid heat-carrying agent, like water, as in solar thermal plants. Across Africa a relatively simple technology is quickly gaining popularity. Concentrating Solar Power (CSP), uses the heat of the sun to make steam and in turn electricity. It can store some of the heat and keep producing power for a couple of hours after the sun sets. 

Why Solar Power Makes Sense

At the moment, roughly half of the people living in the ECOWAS region do not have reliable access to electricity. With regional electricity demand set to jump by roughly five times over the current decade to 250 TWh, the need for long-term energy system planning is now more pressing than ever. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) needs to substantially ramp up generating capacity over the next three decades to keep pace with an anticipated surge in electricity demand. Research suggests that solar PV may be ideally positioned to serve as the prime source of the region’s future energy mix through 2050.  A new report by The International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) shows that the 15 ECOWAS member states  have the potential to collectively deploy up to 20 GW of solar by 2030. According to a study published by a team of researchers from LUT University in Finland, West African countries should plan their future energy systems with an emphasis on solar power. The researchers also state that solar power could potentially fulfill up to 85% of the region’s total energy demand by 2050 while also making electricity prices more affordable. 

Disadvantages Of Solar Energy

The main disadvantage of reliance on solar energy is reliability. Because solar energy relies on the sun, electricity cannot be generated during the night.  Latitude is one of the main factors in determining the efficacy of solar power. Not all locations get the same amount of annual sunlight, with the efficacy of solar power dropping dramatically the farther you get from the equator. The ECOWAS region is located in a prime position to benefit from solar energy. Nigeria for example receives an average of 2672 hours of sunlight per year. 

Electricity in Africa at large

Electricity in Africa has been challenging, with under 45%  of Africans having access to electricity,and of those who do, only 15% having reliable access.  Projects to innovate energy production cannot come quickly enough for the continent. Across sub-Saharan Africa, shortages of electricity are holding back economic growth by as much as 4% a year, according to the the World Bank. Businesses are forced to buy generators, paying many times the cost of grid power. Stable and affordable electricity is a must to progress development, and as such many countries are investing in renewables. Outside of solar, countries such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Ethiopia have turned to hydroelectricity through harnessing the power of the Inga and Nile rivers respectively.