For a region with abundant sunlight – an average of over 320 days per year – the solar resource potential across sub-Saharan Africa remains largely untapped. This potential is paired with enormous energy needs that leave over 600 million without electricity. In response, emerging technologies aim to make solar power development infinitely more feasible.
While solar installations are mostly located in arid regions, high levels of dust and contaminant particles in the atmosphere and the prevalence of dust storms leave deposits that accrue over time on the surface of solar panels. The dust can reduce effectiveness by up to 35%, and even up to 60% after a powerful dust storm. For a single solar panel, spraying desalinated, distilled water – the industry norm – is a simple solution to this build up. However, when water is a scarce resource, such as it is across sub-Saharan Africa, and there are millions of square feet of solar panels, this solution is too expensive to be practical; US$58 million and 420 million litres of water could be wasted over the lifetime of a 100 megawatt installation.
A technology is currently in development by a team of engineers at Boston University that uses an electrostatic field to repel dust and particles on solar panels. Under the direction of Malay Mazumder, College of Engineering research professor of electrical and computer engineering, and Mark Horenstein, professor of electrical and computer engineering, the team has developed a transparent electrodynamic system (EDS): a self-cleaning technology that is either embedded in the device or onto a transparent film adhered to the panel. Using a small amount of electricity, the electrodes are charged to 1200 volts to create an electrostatic field that lifts the dust. By using three different layers and alternating the order that they are turned on, waves across the surface levitate the particles and cause them to dip and rise to the edges as the charge fluctuates. It takes only seconds for at least 90% of the dust to be swept away.
After successfully testing prototypes at Abengoa Solar and Sandia National Laboratories, the next step is to scale the project to industrial-sized models and ensure that the system is resistant to all weather challenges. The group is working to identify a manufacturing partner to produce the panels with EDS technology, after which they believe a product will be on the market within two years. The project has received funding from NASA, the U.S. Department of Energy and the Mass Clean Energy Council. While the project is currently focused in the U.S. Midwest, there is no denying its applicability across sub-Saharan Africa.
A shortage of electricity is considered to be one of Africa’s greatest development challenges. Seventy percent of the population of sub-Saharan Africa is without access to electricity, and this rises close to 92% in rural regions. While the U.S. has a generation capacity of 3360 megawatts per million people, sub-Saharan Africa has only 91 megawatts. 
However, there is visible movement in the direction of solar energy as a means to increase electricity generation, which could help solve this imbalance. The World Energy Outlook estimates that across sub-Saharan Africa, almost half of the growth in electricity generation from 2014-2040 will come from renewables, including solar. As the price of solar cells drops – from 1992 to 2013, the price per watt dropped from $5.70 to $0.65 – this is increasingly viable.
In 2013, President Obama launched Power Africa, which has the long-term aim of doubling access to cleaner, efficient and reliable electricity across the region. Lighting Africa, a joint program of the World Bank and the International Finance Corporation, accelerates the market for off-grid lighting products, and has since facilitated access to solar-powered lighting for over 7.7 million across sub-Saharan Africa. A recent increase in high profile solar power investments from the venture capital community represent the potential for a shift in the market.
Innovative ideas that rework technologies to better match their surroundings increase accessibility and are a step towards reducing energy poverty and increasing the share of renewables in the energy sector. For more information on green technologies, check out this article from expertise.com.
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