JOHANNESBURG - I have been shopping at Makro in Woodmead, Johannesburg, for a number of years and not too long ago I drove into the parking lot and was taken aback by how all the parking space roofs had been converted into solar panels.

While rather impressed, I put this at the back of my mind since I had business to attend to and specials to capitalise on.

What has reminded me of that was South Africa’s Energy Minister Jeff Radebe stating on May 16 that, between 2014 and 2016, $10.9billion (R139.7billion) had been invested in the renewable energy sector, with a further R56bn to be invested over the next few years.

To state the obvious, renewable energy is seemingly where the world is heading, as humanity belatedly recognises the threat of climate change and global warming.

Much has been written about the political shenanigans around South Africa’s Renewable Energy Independent Power Produce Procurement Programme and our flirtation with nuclear power during the Zuma presidency.

Energy policy inevitably gets bogged down in the policy-political morass but the truth remains: the future is renewable energy.

When thinking about the different varieties of renewable energy, Makro’s parking spaces of all things bring me back to solar energy.

The likes of the Sahara, Namib and Karoo deserts are prime solar power opportunities due to the amount of uninterrupted sunshine these areas experience and the lack of people living there.

Abraham Cambridge, chief executive and founder of Sun Exchange, a firm that focuses on distributed solar energy and blockchain tech, says more than 500million people across Africa live without electricity despite the continent sporting some of the world’s sunniest regions. Cambridge believes that distributed solar power is the best solution for the continent’s energy access challenges.

Historically, the cost of implementing solar energy has been prohibitive, and in some respects it remains so. Cambridge says the upfront costs of obtaining an Energy Performance Certificate (EPC) for a building are high. According to Simphiwe Ngwenya of Urban Earth, an EPC is a document that contains statistics about the energy consumption and efficiency of a structure and that in 2016 an EPC, which needs to be renewed every five years, costs between R10000 and R20000.

“With limited financing options available, this can be a significant hurdle for small organisations in emerging markets,” says Cambridge.

There are also other costs to consider beyond the physical, such as security and training. Then there are intangible costs such as working with politicians in crafting policy and convincing and educating the public about the benefits of solar energy and how policy is turned into reality.

Sun Exchange, for instance, aims to solve this problem by “monetising sunshine” by harnessing blockchain technologies.

“We use cryptocurrencies, including our new Sunex Token, Bitcoin, Ether and SolarCoin, to enable frictionless global transactions in our buy-to-lease solar marketplace,” Cambridge explains.

Cheaper

According to other proponents of renewable energy, it will be consistently cheaper than fossil fuels as soon as 2020.

A report by the International Renewable Energy Agency (Irena) released last year states that the cost of generating power from onshore wind has already fallen by about 23percent since 2010, while the cost of solar photovoltaic (PV) electricity has fallen by 73percent during the same period.

Solar PV energy is what Makro is using in their parking bays and it is what we see placed on the roofs of buildings and homes in the form of solar cells.

The cost of solar PV in 2017, according to the Irena report, was about $0.10 (R1.26) per kilowatt hour (kWh). To put that in context, I used 236kWh of electricity in my two-person flat last month, which cost me R391.76. That equals R1.66 per kWh. While instructive to a degree, this comparison isn’t scientific and the cost of implementing solar power will vary from market to market.

Of late, Morocco has shown what can be achieved if political will is backed by action. Egypt, Tunisia and Algeria are also investing heavily in solar energy. These north African countries are clearly making the most of their proximity to the Sahara Desert.

The Noor Ouarzazate complex in Morocco, which is expected to be completed later this year, is reportedly the world’s largest solar energy plant. The links being built to plug into Europe’s power grid should see north Africa start to export significant amounts of energy to Europe in the not-too-distant future.

The opportunity for many African countries to wean themselves off old forms of energy and set themselves up to benefit in the long term is real.

One hopes that African policymakers will make the most of more cost-efficient renewable energy technologies and act fast enough to prevent climate change from causing irreversible damage to our land and livelihoods.

Alan Watson is a contributing tech and innovation writer for AfricanTechRoundup.com or e-mail him on [email protected]

The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

- BUSINESS REPORT