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Monday, October 22, 2007

Botswana heating water with solar thermal energy

article from:

By Ulrike Koltermann and Ralf E Krueger

What had been the star of the world summit on sustainable energy two years ago in Johannesburg can be seen next to the highway to Pretoria.

A huge solar collector gleams in the sun on the grounds of the South African Development Bank. But the hi-tech machine has a flaw: The round disc is rarely correctly positioned, so that it usually points Earthwards, rather than towards the sun as it is supposed to do.

The solar collector, looking like some kind of monument, actually could be seen as a symbol of the application of solar energy technology in Africa. Visitors often wonder why the rooftops on a continent so greatly bathed in sunshine don't have more solar cells.

Botswana is the leader in tapping solar energy in order to heat water
"Only those people who have a lot of money can afford it," is the explanation given by David Otieno of the Kenyan environmental group Solarnet in Kenya.

He says an estimated 200 000 households do use solar power. It costs at least €500 (600 dollars) for the investment in the equipment to convert sunshine into energy - about one-half a person's average annual income in Kenya.

Otieno reports than in the neighbouring country of Ethiopia, as much solar energy is delivered in one day than Germany uses in one and a half years.

"It is above all radios, TV sets and mobile phone rechargers which are operated on solar power," he said. "But the potential for this form of energy is far from being exhausted."

This is also the view of Beate Baethke, solar energy expert for the German investment and development company DEG.

'The politicians want to protect the old state monopolies'
"In southern Namibia there have been measurements showing that just through the sun's radiation alone 3 000 kilowatt-hours could be produced annually per one square metre," she said. "This is several times over the levels found in California."

It is no wonder, then, that the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) is pushing the use of solar energy in Africa. For three years UNEP has been gathering data in the research of the continent's solar and wind power potential.

In many parts of Africa, solar energy does not even have to compete against conventional power sources as is the case in Europe. Electricity networks often do not extend beyond a city's boundaries.

"The question here is not 'solar power or coal', but rather 'solar power or no electricity?'," commented UNEP energy expert Eric Usher. In Zambia, for example, only about five percent of the population has electricity, with solar power conversion the most widely-used source.

Botswana, by contrast, is the leader in tapping solar energy in order to heat water. "There is scarcely a public building there in which the warm water has not been heated by the sun," said Usher.

In South Africa, Germany is promoting the electrification of remote regions. Under a €15,8-million loan, work began in May 2002 to provide 27 000 households, schools and health clinics with solar power.

Prior to that, the European Union had invested €12,5-million in solar energy, the aim to provide 1,000 rural schools with electricity for the first time ever. But the project suffered a setback due to theft of equipment and above all vandalism.

Professor Linda Chisolm of South Africa's national research council HSRC cites a further reason for the difficult position of solar power in Africa.

"There are indications that solar facilities are regarded as a second-class source of electricity in many rural regions, and that they are seen as too weak and too expensive while blocking the greatly-desired access to electric power grids," she said.

Besides such problems of acceptance, many experts also regard the conventional power concerns as an obstacle, and the same applies to governments' unwillingness to try out alternative energy sources.

"The politicians want to protect the old state monopolies," says Otieno of Solarnet in Kenya. "For many governments in Africa, solar energy is something suspicious."

But he says there is some hope. In Kenya, solar collectors come tax-free, and further accessories are also soon to be made exempt from taxes.

Namibia is also going down some new paths, says Beate Baethke. "There, state-recognised technicians can make applications for their customers, and then they receive subsidies," she said.

Above all, farms with no link to the Namibian electricity grid are more and more augmenting their diesel-powered generators with photovoltaic facilities.

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