African Solar Panels: Chilling Beer, Powering Obama’s Grandmother’s Home and More E-mail
Sunday, 13 May 2012 10:00  |  Written by Dawn Marshallsay | Blog Entry

Solar Panels photo by Lance Cheung ImagesPictures of starving African children might lead you to think they don’t have electricity because they can’t afford it, but in most cases it’s not even an option. The geography of Africa makes it difficult to connect rural communities to the power grid, so less than 25% of Africans have access to electricity.

To be honest, most Africans don’t grow up depending on the number of gadgets we do. But without electricity, basic needs, such as heating and cooling of food, and lighting, have had to be powered using fuels that harm the environment. Burning wood and biomass are the most popular fuels for cooking in Africa, according to the UN’s “Human Development Report 2007/2008”(pdf), leading to tree felling and CO2 emissions.

Instead, solar panels create renewable, carbon-free, reliable energy. The fact that Africans have fewer gadgets to power than Westerners makes solar panels particularly suitable for Africa. Although solar panels might not generate enough electricity for our needs—the average American household uses 936 kilowatt-hours per month, according to the Energy Information Administration (EIA)—they are more than sufficient for the average African.

The installation of 9,000 solar-power systems in the River Estate near Shamva (70km from Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare) in 1995 is often cited as the most ambitious solar-power project in Africa. Working through the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), the Global Environment Facility (GEF)—"the world's largest funder of environmental projects," according to their Senior Communications Officer, Christian Hofer—added $7 million to Zimbabwe’s $400,000 to bring the River Estate project to life.

The cost may sound huge, but the results are worth it. Each system powers two houses, enabling each family to power two lamps and a radio or TV. Benefiting the community as a whole, electricity has extended children’s study hours and powered a local health center.

Ethiopia’s largest solar project, initiated in 1997 and located in the village of Rema—150 miles north of the capital city, Addis Ababa—was funded by international aid groups. Every house there is now powered by electricity, a rarity for Ethiopia, where 80% of the population live in rural areas with only 1% having electricity access. Rema’s 2,100 solar home systems have encouraged new people to move there and have helped local trade. Bar workers, who once had to chill beer in the sand and inhale smoke from paraffin lamps, can now offer beer from the fridge in a smoke-free atmosphere.

As well as raising living standards, saving trees and reducing pollution, the construction, installation and maintenance of solar panels creates jobs for locals of all ages. A case in point is Kenya, where Greenpeace’s Solar Generation ran solar-panel workshops for youngsters in August 2009. Members of the Kibera Community Youth Project and villagers from Nyang’oma Kogelo learned how to build and maintain solar panels, and construct and market self-assembling solar lamps. During the project, solar panels were installed on the roofs of Senator Barack Obama School in Kogelo and on Obama’s grandmother’s house!

Other organizations funding solar power in Africa range from the World Bank to the UK’s Ashden Awards. A Tanzanian solar entrepreneur, Mohamedrafik Parpia, won a £30,000 ($50,000) grant from Ashden in 2007 to run his own solar-panel business. It has since set up nearly 4,000 systems. There are even plans to install solar panels across the Sahara desert to power 15% of Europe.

It’s easy to doubt how our own actions can affect the world, but the changes in the lives of thousands of people in Africa due to the introduction of solar power are clear. You can help by donating or fundraising for a charity involved in African solar power, such as SolarAid.

Spread the word: solar panels are not only powering villages, but empowering lives.

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Comments (2)add
Written by Aaron , October 22, 2009
This is a cool article, I think solar power is definitely the best way we can produce renewable energy
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Written by JB , October 18, 2009
It's nice to hear encouraging environmental news from around the world. Thank you!
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