Providing reliable, affordable and sustainable access to energy has become a core focus of the international development community and is the seventh goal of the 2015 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.
Roughly 1.2 billion people, or 17 percent of the global population, are energy poor, meaning that they have no access to electricity. Meanwhile, more than 2.7 billion people, primarily in developing Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, rely on fuelwood and other traditional biomass sources for cooking.
Morocco’s experience with solar power offers key lessons for policymakers elsewhere in Africa who are seeking a robust pathway for addressing energy access challenges.
Electricity’s role in development
Electricity plays an essential role in advancing social and economic development goals. Yet across Africa, an estimated 600 million people still lack energy access. In 38 of the 49 sub-Saharan African countries, at least half of the population lives without electricity. The region’s overall electrification rate is about 35 percent, with large disparities between urban (63 percent electricity access) and rural populations (19 percent access).
There is broad recognition that access to electricity is critical to achieving social and economic benefits, such as modern healthcare (PDF) services and health-related education (PDF). Areas that lack electricity access often struggle to retain doctors and nurses. And health facilities that lack access to modern energy typically do not have the refrigeration services necessary to conserve vaccines and other medical substances.
Modern energy access also provides important benefits such as public lighting and security. Studies show that access to electricity extends productive working hours and provides opportunities for economic growth. In sub-Saharan African countries with low electricity access, it can be extremely costly to provide electric power for mechanized water pumps.
Providing communities with reliable access to electricity positively can affect education, greatly improving students’ access to information. The absence of electricity can impede the retention of qualified teachers and limit students’ study time.
For children in rural areas, who often engage in household chores such as collecting cooking fuel, access to electricity could help them pursue classwork in the evening with better lighting. It also could encourage night classes for adults. Far-reaching aspects of socioeconomic life are affected by the absence of or access to electricity and other modern energy sources.
Untapped renewable energy potential
The International Energy Agency has noted that “sub-Saharan Africa is rich in energy resources, but very poor in energy supply.”
Although energy use in Africa increased 45 percent between 2000 to 2012, the continent still accounts for only 4 percent of the world’s total energy demand. Satisfying energy demand on a continent experiencing both rapid economic and population growth is an important challenge. In the absence of new energy-related policies and initiatives, more than 70 percent of sub-Saharan Africa’s rural population is likely to remain unelectrified by 2030.
Africa’s energy resources are tremendous. Thirty percent of oil and gas discoveries over the last five years have been in Africa. Given the resolve of signatories to the 2015 Paris climate agreement to limit global temperature rise to below 2 degrees Celsius, tapping into Africa’s renewable energy potential would put the continent on the right path to achieve the United Nations’ seventh Sustainable Development Goal on affordable and clean energy.
So far (PDF), less than 10 percent of Africa’s estimated hydropower technical potential — assessed at 283 gigawatts (GW) — has been used. The continent’s geothermal energy potential is concentrated in the Eastern Africa Rift Valley and can be harnessed at a cost that is competitive with fossil fuels. Wind potential in Africa is concentrated mostly in the northern part of the continent and is estimated at around 1,300 GW.
Solar irradiation, meanwhile, is abundant throughout Africa, thanks to the 320 days of bright sunlight available annually (2,000 kilowatt-hours per square meter annually, or twice the average level in Germany). Yet to date, African countries have not collectively seized the benefits of renewable energy, particularly solar energy, although interest is growing.
Ethiopia, Kenya, Morocco, South Africa and Uganda are the continent’s solar leaders. Although many other African countries have solar installations of varying sizes, their overall renewable energy share remains small.
Solar growing in Morocco
According to the World Bank, Morocco went from 71.1 percent electricity access in 2000 to 98 percent access in 2010 and 100 percent access in 2012. In 2015, 34 percent of the country’s energy supply was provided by renewable energy (PDF), with solar representing 2 percent of this. Morocco has explored the use of both photovoltaic (PV) systems and concentrated solar thermal power (CSP).
After a successful push to electrify households through the National Program for Rural Electrification, Morocco launched the PPER, which focused on individual and collective solar mini-grid systems. In 1998, solar PV kits officially were considered to be a valuable tool for rural electrification.
Morocco has greatly expanded its CSP capacity, adding 160 GW in 2015 and having 350 GW under construction, providing electricity to more than 1 million people. The World Bank estimates that Morocco will make history through its CSP initiatives, underscoring the significance of these steps.
Lessons from Morocco
Solar energy potential is not distributed evenly across African countries, and not all countries have the same financial capacities as Morocco. While it may not be possible to scale Morocco’s successes to the continent at large, there are some interesting lessons to apply.
First, despite the world’s continued addiction to fossil fuels (more than 95 percent of energy worldwide comes from fossil sources such as coal, oil and natural gas), it is possible to invest profitably in renewable energy — particularly solar. As in the case of Morocco, countries can exploit a mix of enabling equity, debt instruments and solar-based electricity options.
Second, solar PV systems proved an ideal option for rural electrification in Morocco and were conditioned to the high cost of providing grid access to residents. With grid electrification exceeding 2,400 euros per household (PDF), solar home systems were considered a viable alternative for electricity provision. Households and settlements located relatively far from any electricity sources, or dispersed across territories, were able to rely on decentralized options such as solar PV kits.
These installations were facilitated by certain companies in Morocco. For example, Temasol has been engaged in buying and installing solar home systems for customers. The customers, in return, pay for the installation and upkeep fees based on the initial “fee for service,” which does not exert any new financial pressure on them.
Overall, about 12 million people in Morocco’s rural areas have been supplied with electricity through the country’s solar PV and solar home system initiatives, which are cheaper overall than CSP projects. However, because solar PV is intermittent and cannot ensure electricity provision during the daily evening peak, the country has added CSP to its solar ambitions.
Because larger CSP projects have high investment risk, government support has played a critical role in CSP development. Some economists advocate for a low discount rate in implementing environmental and climate change projects. Most developed countries have chosen a discount rate below 5 percent, which is harder for developing countries to adopt because of economic constraints. Morocco was able to implement its first CSP project, Noor 1, through robust public-private partnerships, putting liberalization of the renewable energy sector at the core of energy development planning. The massive project ultimately will energize about 1 million households, even in periods of high night peak demand.
For countries considering the development of CSP, having an instrument such as the Moroccan Agency for Solar Energy (MASEN) might be beneficial. Such a dedicated body can prepare the ground for investment by assessing a project’s feasibility and risk of failure, considering the environmental and social consequences, and conducting research to facilitate project implementation. MASEN has engaged in environmental and social impact assessment of projects as well as carried out land acquisition on a voluntary basis in targeted areas.
Countries also can establish a legal framework to help regulate CSP projects. In the absence ofnecessary legislation, implementing a new approach to energy development such as solar easily can decrease a project’s chance of success.
In Morocco, solar PV and CSP were each assessed for their ability to provide electricity. PV systems are useful in reliably reaching out to isolated households and communities, despite their intermittency, whereas CSP is able to generate electricity consistently, although it can require prohibitively high initial investments. Some scientists (PDF) recommend that the “higher the growth of annual maximum peak demand, the more CSP should be employed; the lower the peak, the more PV can be used,” suggesting that CSP is better for places where energy use is higher.
Considering the specifics and realities of each African country, a broad, scalable strategy for solar development is hard to conceive. Nevertheless, it is useful to have positive models to draw upon in the solar field. Although the lessons from Morocco are both economically and technologically demanding, they could represent a key springboard for action elsewhere on the continent.