Global take-up of solar power continues to grow and has, as Mark Hankins writes in Sun-Connect (20/05/2013), switched from being 99 per cent off-grid 20 years ago to 99 per cent on-grid in 2012. This may be a broadly encouraging picture, but the whole of Africa accounted for just 1.5 per cent of total solar energy sales last year – less than the UK alone.
Hankins argues that the current focus on off-grid solar products in rural Africa obscures the need to increase on-grid solar energy generation which can be accessed in urban areas. Here, he says, are the middle classes who are "...starting businesses, creating opportunities, growing economies and using the bulk of the country's generated power." He goes on to say "...while no one can legitimately criticize the intentions of aid-focused attempts to help replace the poor person's kerosene burden, there is a glaring fallacy in the rhetoric.... It is not about poor people's energy access — it is about green power period."
But it is not about "green power period" at all. It is about green power, but it is also about poor people's energy access - and to deny that is to deny access to energy that can transform the lives and livelihoods of people in rural, off-grid environments.
The greening of mains power generation in Africa is vital and solar power is the natural choice. But it has taken Europe and North America the best part of three decades to start seeing the benefits of solar's contribution to national grids and there is no reason to think – even with the practical and financial backing of the international community – that Africa will move any faster. Nor is it likely that remote rural communities will be connected to mains power supplies with any greater speed than is currently happening, so even if solar energy's contribution to power generation in Africa increases rapidly, it is unlikely that those outside the urban areas will see much benefit for many years to come.
In the meantime, people living in poor rural areas continue to need access to lighting, information, communications, clean water and the sort of small-scale energy generation that off-grid solar technology offers. Solar-powered lighting systems, radios, media players and chargers are already in use across large areas of rural Africa and solar-powered energy hubs – capable of powering anything from a mobile phone to a TV or fridge – will soon be widely available, providing a realistic alternative to mains power. These products contribute to community development, democratic participation, educational achievement, the creation and growth of small business and the improvement of local, rural economies – all things that contribute to sustainable economic growth on a national and continental scale.
So, rather than a change of focus from off-grid to on-grid solar energy, what is required is a broadening of focus to include both. Africa's diversity must be reflected in similarly diverse approaches to solar energy.