At first glance, passengers flying into George, a regional airport in South Africa, might not notice anything unusual about the service. Baggage carousels spit out luggage, checkin proceeds at the usual pace, and free Wi-Fi amuses bored children in the waiting rooms.
Yet this is the first airport on the African continent --and only the second in the world--to be entirely solar powered. On the perimeter of the airport's runway, 2000 photovoltaic (PV) panels capture the blazing sun of Africa's southern coast, producing 750KW of electricity--enough to power the airport and 250 local homes.
This transformative project is setting the bar for renewable projects on an African continent desperately in need of new energy solutions. In a flagship report, the Africa Progress Panel estimates that some 621m people--two out of every three Africans--still have no access to electricity. If the African Development Bank is to get close to its ambition of universal access by 2025, analysts acknowledge that renewable energy must play a far greater role than it does at present. Yet despite the best of intentions, potentially transformative projects fall victim to policy and regulatory uncertainty, gaps in finance and a sector-wide knowledge deficit, says one expert.
"When we speak to companies interested in financing projects in Africa, they often complain of a lack of knowledge of projects," says Dr James Watson, chief executive of SolarPower Europe, a private sector association.
"Project developers often find it difficult to find local partners. The local partners also struggle to find credible companies to work with and finance."
While the Paris Agreement, the historic climate change document signed at the UN Climate Change Conference (COP21) last December, specifically calls for the "enhanced deployment" of renewable energy on the African continent, industry participants acknowledge that much more needs to be done to make this a reality. With African countries desperate for funding and businesses looking for new markets for their technologies, the middlemen who can make deals happen assume an ever more important role.
Responding to the challenge
In a bid to turn ambitious plans into reality, the European Commission has committed substantial financial resources to a number of key initiatives that will facilitate multi-million euro investments for projects across the continent to boost energy access for businesses and citizens alike. The efforts are aimed at...