Renewable energy, in particular solar power, is going through a boom right now. By James Clark

Renewable energy is an important contributor to today’s world and there has been a significant development in the sector with efficiency and cost being dominant to consumers. The demand for alternative energy is ever increasing and one area that is expanding right now is solar power.

The solar industry has gone through a number of changes in recent years. The price of solar panels has dropped by 70 per cent due to mass production in response to demand and it has received massive investment, $380 billion from the World Bank and other financial institutions alone. This combination has resulted in an explosion of worldwide interest and installed capacities. Although the world’s attention is on solar power, the concept is nothing new.

The first solar cells were built in 1880, followed by much more advanced solar sections in the 1950s and 1960s for the US space programme. In the 1970s the first cells were produced for consumers as the western world began to consider alternative energy sources. Since its inception solar technology has advanced dramatically, from a single cell to solar panels capable of supplying entire cities like the Masdar City project planned in Abu Dhabi.

Other energy related technologies rely on scale to make it work, but one of the benefits of solar is it can function efficiently on any scale from charging a mobile phone to the 100 acre solar plant under construction in South Arkansas to provide power as a utility. Once built it allows certainty on electricity prices, with the added benefit that plant maintenance costs don’t tend to fluctuate for up to 20 years.

Furthermore the trend is catching on in countries without guaranteed electricity. The African continent is looking into solar power as a way to reduce its electricity deficit and prices that it pays to import energy. In Zambia only about five per cent of citizens have access to electricity and the nation often experiences blackouts lasting for up to ten hours a day.

“One major project that we’ve been involved in for the last 15 months has been the solar initiative in Zambia,” said Luca Santoni, Team Leader Renewables at WSP Parsons Brinkerhoff. “We’ve been working with the International Finance Corporation, the World Bank Group and the local government to develop the first phase of a 100 megawatt plant, which ended up being about 80 megawatts following the tender. We carried out all the technical studies, investigations, and managed part of the tender evaluation. The highlight of this was an initiative aimed at cutting the development costs and risk to developers and investors to invest into Zambia. The construction of phase one is starting now and the second has just launched. We are involved in that as well, which is targetting a round 200 megawatts.”

The two large-scale solar photovoltaics (PV) projects in Zambia are under development in the country after some major PV developers won tenders as part of the World Bank’s ‘Scaling Solar’ programme, a joint venture with the International Finance Corporation (IFC) and Multilateral Investment Guarantee Agency. The programme was set up to promote solar energy in developing nations, which it achieves by offering various services to developers that reduce risks and the costs involved for investors. Once completed the electricity will be sold for as little as 6.02 cents per KWh making it the cheapest in African to date and among the lowest prices for solar worldwide.

Philippe Le Houérou, International Finance Corporation’s Chief Executive Officer and Executive Vice President spoke about the project in a press release: “Scaling Solar is paving the way for governments to deliver fast, cheap, and clean energy – even in relatively small and untested markets – and setting a new regional standard for procuring large-scale solar power.” The IFC has invested more than $25 billion into African businesses and institutions and to date has a portfolio going above $5 billion.

This isn’t the only solar power project happening in Zambia right now. The Italian multinational renewable energy corporation Enel Green Power is developing and investing $40 million into the 28 megawatt Mosi-oa-Tunya PV park project. On completion the company will sell the electricity for 7.84 cents to state-owned utility company ZESCO under a 25-year guaranteed contract. It is expected to enter into operation in the summer of 2017.

“This is a landmark award for EGP, underling the consistent development of a gradually and well planned expansion in selected areas of the African continent when the company can play a key role in providing smart, efficient and sustainable solutions,” said Francesco Venturini, Head of Enel Green Power in a press release. “Our entry into Zambia – a country offering a very attractive investment proposition – is another step forward in this respect and we are proud to contribute to the Scaling Solar programme, one of the bestdesigned schemes for renewables in Africa.”

As of 2017, solar PV generates less than two per cent of today’s global electricity, but this figure is going to rise. According to an International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) report released at the InterSolar Europe 2016 exhibition, this figure is expected to grow to 13 per cent by 2030 as the solar industry prepares for massive expansion, which is driven by cost reductions. It estimates that solar PV capacity could reach between 1760 and 2500 gigawatts by 2030.

“Recent analysis from the IRENA finds that cost reductions for solar will continue into the future, with further declines of up to 59 per cent possible in the next ten years. This comprehensive overview of the solar industry finds that these cost reductions, in combination with other enabling factors, can create a dramatic expansion of solar power globally. The renewable energy transition is well underway, with solar playing a central role,” said IRENA Director-General Adnan Z. Amin in a press release about the report.

On a final note more than eight million people were employed in renewable energy in 2015, with the US being a major contributor as the trend for solar and wind power explodes. To put things into perspective, in the same year 769,000 people were employed in renewable energy, compared to 187,000 in the oil and gas sector in the US alone.

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