During the beginning of the countdown last Friday to build the world’s largest lithium ion battery plant for a state in the southern central part of Australia in less than 100 days, billionaire Elon Musk informed his audience that the entire country could be powered by 1,890 square kilometres of solar panels backed up by seven square kilometres of batteries.
“It’s not just talk,” he said. “It’s reality.”
Musk is the chief executive officer of the California-based Tesla, best known for making electric cars. He is also the CEO of SpaceX which is already revolutionising space travel.
What he was essentially saying is that the solar panels can produce up to 35,000 megawatts for the country’s total population of about 24 million. That was the national power demand projected by the Australian Energy Regulator for 2016/2017.
Under the Power Africa Initiative, a legacy project of former US President Barack Obama, the projection is to have installed power generation capacity of 30,000 megawatts by 2030 for a population estimated to have peaked at 1.6 billion.
The possibilities a Tesla option may offer need not be belaboured comparing Africa’s potential with Australia. However, so far, according to the Power Africa Annual Report released last August, the initiative has facilitated generation of more than 7,200 MW, and supported private-sector companies and utilities in connecting a total of 10.6 million homes and businesses on the continent.
Of this facilitation, just over 1,400 megawatts in the EAC (i.e., 670 megawatts in Tanzania, 537 in Kenya, 105 in Uganda and 96 in Rwanda).
Announced in 2013, the initiative has so far helped connect only about half the projected number of households on the continent. However, about two-thirds of these new connections are solar based and mainly consist of a single light and mobile-phone charging capability.
It requires larger power systems to run heavier appliances if there is to be any economic impact. The annual report says the power initiative has so far helped connect more than two million homes and businesses to such systems.
Needless to say, regionally, as on the wider continent, there is keen awareness of the need for energy to power economic growth. This has spawned projects such as the one under the Nile Equatorial Lakes Subsidiary Action Programme to ensure power network from Kenya to Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.
While efforts continue to ensure universal access to electricity in the country, it was reported this week that the Rwanda Energy Group was reported to have re-evaluated the national energy rollout strategy to sync with the Government’s seven-year programme with the development of the 7-5-2 Plan.
The plan aims to have provided the entire country with power in the next seven years, industrial producers nationwide within the next five, and in the entirety of Kigali City in the next two years.
A similar 7-5-2 plan is just as feasible in other African countries.
Thus, thinking more continentally, especially with the prices for solar panels having fallen sharply by up to 80 per cent in recent years, the possibilities are immense.
Consider, therefore, Musk’s suggestion of the 1,890 square kilometre solar power farm somewhere in Africa with the unlimited sun in the empty vastness in places such as the Sahara or Kalahari Desert. Such an area is just slightly more than twice Kigali city’s geographic area which stands at 730 square kilometres.
To conceive that it is possible to generate the entirety of the continent’s current electricity needs from such a tiny space, not to mention the potential to enhance the quality of life for hundreds of millions and the accelerated socio-economic development, is to wonder why we may not leapfrog on the back of current wind and solar technology.
Even without relying on American largesse under the Power Africa Initiative, the success of which is already in doubt under the Donald Trump regime, Africa would be able to afford the cost of such a project.
A recent study by the Global Financial Integrity (GFI) showed how, in 2012, the last year of recorded data, developing countries received a total of $1.3 trillion, including aid, investment and income from abroad. But that same year some $3.3tn flowed out of them. A huge chunk of the $2 trillion difference was from Africa.
Perhaps we should consider calling Tesla to the power rescue.