Africa should follow China's lead, and foster solar innovation, production and demand, says UN-Habitat's Banji Oyelaran-Oyeyinka.
There are many reasons why Africa should turn to solar power to meet its energy needs. The continent receives an average of 6kWh of solar energy per square metre every day.
In the face of climate change, Africa is also under increasing pressure to find low-carbon alternatives to traditional fuels.
And solar power is not only about reducing emissions — it can also help reduce poverty. An estimated 560 million people live without electricity in Sub-Saharan Africa and 625 million rely on solid fuels such as wood or coal for cooking.
Solar technology can provide clean, good quality light, heat, cookers and communications with very little electricity — but with huge benefits for health and quality of life.
The falling costs and growing markets for solar technology provide yet another incentive for Africa to engage in solar power.
Several technologies are competing to improve the efficiency of solar power, including photovoltaics and concentrated solar thermal. Production costs are falling and solar power is predicted to dominate the global renewable energy market within ten years.
According to the global management consultancy firm McKinsey & Company, global installed solar capacity will increase twenty to fortyfold by 2020. And the research and publishing firm Clean Edge predict solar photovoltaics — including modules, system components, and installation — will grow from a US$29.6 billion industry in 2008 to US$80.6 billion by 2018.
If Africa can tap into these markets, positioning itself as a global supplier and consumer of solar technology, it will reap economic growth and development.
In theory, Africa should be able to gradually replace conventional fuels with solar power in four sectors: power generation, hot water and space heating, transport fuels, and rural energy.
But that will require governments to use a range of subsidies and incentives to foster small-scale solar developments so they grow into a fully-fledged industry that can deliver economies of scale and, eventually, grid parity.
Many countries, including China, Germany, Israel and Spain have already shown that schemes such as capital subsidies, renewable energy certificates, feed-in tariffs (favourable rates paid to grid-connected renewable energy systems), net metering (paying those who generate renewable energy for their excess power) and a solar photovoltaic mandate can successfully promote solar photovoltaics.
Lessons from China
Africa needs to build its capacity to develop and produce the technology itself and provide incentives to ensure solar products enjoy wide uptake.
The continent can learn a lot from countries such as China, which has in recent years seen phenomenal growth in its renewable energy industry. By 2008 it had the third largest renewable power capacity in the world.
One clear lesson is the need for strong innovation policies that foster efficient, high-quality technology institutions, a cadre of highly skilled engineers, and professionally managed enterprises.
The major weakness of development policies in Africa has been a failure to appreciate how dynamic technological advance drives long-term economic development. While many governments establish ministries of science and technology, these often have little interaction with other economic policy ministries.
The same was true in China, until the institutional reforms of the 1980s placed explicit emphasis on acquiring technological capability and learning from other countries.
Since then, China has focused on providing national technological infrastructure to support domestic firms, in the quest for beneficial innovations such as solar power. Research and development expenditure on solar energy, and indeed all sectors, has been rising for the past quarter century.
The government also encourages national procurement from local firms and actively promotes linkages, investment and collaborative learning between Chinese and foreign firms. The sole aim is to build capacity and gain external markets.
Action in Africa
In contrast to China, most African countries remain hampered by a weak bureaucratic capacity to manage a modern system of innovation. This severely limits their administrative and institutional capabilities to promote solar technology.
African policymakers must start by financing technology and innovation support, including new investments and other incentives to promote research, development and design of solar technology and production systems.
And this financial support needs to be backed by legislation processes that support technology adoption.
Perhaps most importantly, African policymakers need to link universitieswith manufacturers to ensure that knowledge and capacity is integrated into production systems.
Given the right investment and support, I am confident that African nations can harness solar power to create a brighter future for its people.
Banji Oyelaran-Oyeyinka is director of the Monitoring and Research Division at UN-HABITAT in Nairobi, Kenya.