Solar and Wind are Insulting Non-Solutions for Energy-Poor Africans

by Vijay Jayaraj

More than half the population of sub-Saharan Africa lives without reliable electricity, hindering the region’s development and economic growth. Even basic services in hospitals are a rarity due to insufficient power supplies.

Offers of off-grid wind and solar energy as a solution demonstrate a lack of both a long-term vision and a proper understanding of energy systems. Such approaches deny rural Africans the energy independence and economic development they deserve.

As of 2023, approximately 770 million people in Africa and Asia lacked access to electricity, with Sub-Saharan Africa being the most affected region. In Senegal, for example, less than half of the healthcare facilities had access to electricity. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the African country with the least healthcare facilities on a per capita basis in 2017 was the Central African Republic. Other countries similarly lacking included South Sudan, Mali, Chad, and Benin.

Insufficient power supplies “severely limits adoption of emerging technologies in sectors such as banking, education, agriculture, and finance that could otherwise alleviate some of the core challenges facing Africans,” writes Nirav Patel, a former Brookings analyst.

Lack of access to electricity reduces the probability of employment by approximately 35 percent, according to World Bank data. The overall quality of life decreases, with many households relying on kerosene lamps, charcoal, wood, and candles for basic needs like lighting and cooking.

Many healthcare centers operate without ventilators, X-ray machines, CT scanners, and incubators. Such facilities experience a 43 percent increase in mortality for each day power is unavailable for more than two hours, according to a study published in Global Public Health.

Instead of devising policies to provide reliable grid electricity to energy-starved people, many international organizations and funding groups propose off-grid energy development – particularly solar installations.

The disadvantages of solar include its intermittency and expense. Solar panels are costly to install, are vulnerable to damage by storms, demand continual maintenance, and require comparatively huge amounts of materials and land to produce the same amount of electricity as plants powered by fossil and nuclear fuels.

Even large solar energy systems are not capable of meeting high demands for electricity because of the low-capacity factor.

The capacity factor of a power plant is a measure of how close the actual power produced by the plant over a given period is to the theoretical maximum power that the plant could produce if it were to operate continuously at maximum output.

One of the reasons the capacity factor of solar panels is lower than that of solid fuels such as coal is the intermittent nature of solar energy. The full strength of the sun is not always available because of clouds, fog, and nightfall. Even dust on the panels diminishes their effectiveness.

Depending on a region’s wind patterns, wind energy’s intermittency can be even worse.

In contrast, solid fuels typically operate at close to their maximum capacity for extended periods of time without interruption.

There is a big difference between experimenting with solar and wind in advanced economies of the West and doing the same in regions of extreme poverty where there is no grid electricity to back up failures of intermittent technologies. It makes no sense to propose inefficient solutions to the grave problems of people struggling to survive the deprivations of abject poverty.

Policymakers do not feel the brutal pain of energy impoverishment in their comfortable offices in Europe and North America as they divert billions of public funds into solar and wind installations in Africa. Such callousness toward the poor is intolerable.

This commentary was first published at BizPac Review, April 25, 2023, and can be accessed here.

Vijay Jayaraj is a Research Associate at the CO2 Coalition, Arlington, Virginia. He holds a master’s degree in environmental sciences from the University of East Anglia, UK and resides in India.

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