Solar Power–The Future Energy Resource For Africa
By: Kwabena Osei
The “second liberation” of Africa would be the use of solar energy to generate electricity to power our homes and industries. Leaders and people of Africa ought to pull themselves out from poverty by utilising the vast amount of solar energy that hits the continent’s surface each year. The sun should be the future energy powerhouse if the continent is to attain a better and meaningful development that will benefit the people as well as the environment. The beauty of it all could be the electrification of our towns and villages with energy from the Sun and the replacement of tro-tro buses with solar driven electric trains.
The average solar power received on the Earth’s surface is 1.2×1017 W. This means that, the energy supply from the Sun in an hour can meet the total energy consumption on Earth for a whole year. No doubt the Sun has been worshipped as a life-giver to our planet in ancient times.
Most of the energy we use today originates from the Sun. Energy from the sun has been absorbed by biological organisms over millions of years to form most of the energy sources that has made possible, the industrial growth known to us today. In fact, the energy of sunlight is converted naturally into various energy forms. For example wave energy is a result of the interaction between the convection-driven winds and the surface of the sea. Biological energy (biomass energy) is also stored in living organisms by the process of photosynthesis. These energy forms are available as renewable resources because of the regular replacement of the energy on a daily or even hourly basis. On the other hand fossil fuels (coal, oil and gas), although laid down effectively as biomass, take millions of years to form and needs to be regarded as finite, non-renewable resources.
Countries in Africa cannot afford to depend heavily on these non-renewable energy resources. These non-renewable resources are not only harmful to the environment, but are also expensive to be used as the main energy resource in Africa. If solar power was to be utilised as the main source of energy in Africa, in the long run, it will work out much cheaper than gas, coal, oil etc, and I believe it will also reduce the continent’s dependency on foreign aids.
The colonisation of the African continent brought about the adaptation of a life style similar to that of the colonial masters and has made us dependent. We should liberate ourselves from this kind of dependency by adopting a new way of development.
At the UN Earth Summit or Rio Summit in 1992, Governments across the world signed an agreement known as “Agenda 21”. This required national governments to address sustainable development issues. Agenda 21 addresses the serious problems of today and also aims at preparing the world for the challenges of the next century. It reflects a global agreement and political commitment at the highest level on development and environment integration. Its successful implementation is first and foremost the responsibility of Governments. Countries on the continent of Africa, as a first step, can begin to utilize solar energy in support of this issue.
The World Solar Summit, which took place in Harare, Zimbabwe in September 1996, set focus on energy from the sun as a future energy resource. Representatives of Head of States and Government from 100 countries recognised, among others, that energy is essential for the socio-economic development, scientific and technological progress of all countries, and that there is a need to provide enough energy services at a reasonable cost. There is the need to increase access to energy to a large extent in developing countries in order to meet current and expanding needs in ways which minimise environmental degradation and risks. There is also the need to conserve non-renewable energy resources and to realise the full potential of renewable energy resources. The summit was launched at the initiative of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, in collaboration with other international organizations and institutions. The world recognised the significance of the role that solar energy should play in the provision of energy services for the well-being of mankind.
The continent of Africa receives large amounts of solar energy each year, but most of the people don’t have electricity in their homes. The amount of solar energy that hits the continent’s surface each year is more than 5 times the total energy consumed on the continent. Leaders of Africa are called upon to make it a target for utilizing this vast amount of free energy, for the benefit of the people and the environment. The majority of people in Africa do not have access to electricity because they live in remote villages. For example, only 40% of the population in Ghana have access to electricity. The cost of transporting electricity, as in case of conventional electricity supply (through cables and pylons), makes it less cost-effective for the government and therefore, in most cases, these people are deprived from their rights of having access to electricity, but energy availability both in terms of quantity and quality is a key determinant of the economic productivity of most human systems. Solar-generated electricity can “liberate” people living in remote villages and can make electricity accessible to all. The good thing about solar-generated electricity is that; it is flexible, thus it can be installed anywhere the sun shines.
The continuing trend of major economic and environmental challenges facing Africa today needs positive and sustainable responses. We should adopt technological innovations which take into account local environment and human circumstances. Using solar energy in Africa will reduce most of the problems the continent is facing today. The cost of electricity will be cheaper for the ordinary African. Everybody will have access to electricity and benefit from energy services such watching TVs, illuminating homes, using computers etc
Today solar-generated electricity serves people living in the most isolated spots in Europe, America and in other developed nations, even though there is limited sun shine in most of these areas. Solar Energy is now generating electricity for refrigerators for vaccine storage, pumping water for irrigation, lighting at nighttimes and charging batteries. Apart from generating electricity, Solar Energy can be used to produce hot water for our homes and hospitals, and with careful design of our buildings, solar energy can assist in creating cool indoor climate. We might one day be able to use solar energy to power our trains and cars. Like the European being able to utilize snow for a common purpose, Africa should also be in the position to use the sun’s energy profitably.
The lack of street lights and traffic lights in most African cities can remarkably be improved. Solar powered streetlight will be ideal for illuminating streets, walk ways, etc. This will help to make the streets safer at night. Kerosene lanterns can be replaced by solar lanterns. At the Solar laboratory at the Kwame Nkrumah’s University of Science and Technology (KNUST) in Kumasi – Ghana, engineers and technicians have developed a solar lantern using the same mechanism as the old kerosene lantern except that the wick has been replaced by bulbs and the kerosene has been replaced by batteries that can be charged during the day by a solar panel. The Ghana Government can financially support initiatives such as these and the lanterns can be mass produced and made available at an affordable price.
Africa should not create the same problems (like CO2-emission, oil-spill and waste problem) as the western civilisation has brought upon us all. In our days of development, the people of Africa should learn from these mistakes by depending less on imported technologies, majority of which are not ideal for us. For example, refrigerators that are imported into Africa usually have thermal insulation thickness that is not suitable for the high ambient temperature of the continent and therefore a lot of electricity is wasted. We must begin to develop and use technologies that are suitable for us and our environment.
The international community must support sustainable development in Africa by realising the joint implementation projects proposed by the Kyoto protocol. The world has to deal with some huge problems like poverty, famine and climatic changes. These problems are all linked. In tackling them we must find integrated solutions, but not at the expense of the future generation. It might seem like a huge task, but if governments throughout the world take small steps towards the use of renewable energy, we can help to reduce local, national and global environmental problems.
One of the most important thing Africans have to learn on their journey towards sustainability is that more progress is made if we concentrate on dialogue rather than debate, and seek integrated and equally valuable solutions. Sustainability is not a solitary pursuit. It is more effective if it is a collaborative effort. Encouraging more people to join the solar energy clan means, letting more people know that solar power technologies are right here right now. It means using the media to broadcast how solar energy is not just reserved for pocket calculators and research in space, but can power our refrigerators, TVs, computers and much more. Encouraging solar technologies will reduce cost and will also help to leave behind a much better environment for the generation to come.
The cost of solar systems (solar heaters, PV-systems, solar-box cookers etc) might be too high for the ordinary African, but it’s because we don’t engage ourselves in producing them. If we commit ourselves to fully utilise the free energy from the sun, the prices of these systems will in the long run be affordable. It will benefit the people of the continent and we will depend less on fossil fuels, which are known to be costly as well as harmful to the environment.
In the next article we will look at PV-systems (photovoltaic systems). We will identify the various components and will give short descriptions of each component. We will also look at the sizing of a PV-system for a house (particular load) by considering solar radiation for the site. The installation process, effectiveness and efficiency of solar panels will also be looked at.
My contribution towards sustainable development in Ghana
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