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Op-Eds Feb 19, 2024 Asterisk

Why Isn’t Solar Scaling in Africa?

Future of Energy Tech

Originally published in Asterisk, February 19, 2024.

The World Bank designed the Scaling Solar program to set Africa on a course to sustainable energy. Instead, it shed light on how a lack of transparency in the climate and development industry hampers progress.

The solution seems so obvious. A region synonymous with abundant sun is hungry for more electricity. Given Africa’s colossal untapped solar radiation, the continent should be installing solar panels at a furious pace. But it’s not. Though home to 60% of the world’s best solar resources, Africa today represents just 1% of installed solar photovoltaic capacity. The entire region of 1.2 billion people has just one-fifth the solar capacity of cloudy, temperate Germany.

One sad tale begins with a high-profile initiative that explains a lot about Africa’s missing solar boom. In 2015, the private sector arm of the World Bank launched Scaling Solar to prove that bundling support for investments could blaze a trail to a solar future for everyone. Its first big project was impressive: Zambia, one of the world’s poorest countries, was able not only to attract private capital but also to slash costs for power by more than 80%. Scaling Solar’s next project in Senegal came in even cheaper. Then a 2019 solar farm in Uzbekistan was even lower. And then … nothing.

Scaling Solar did not scale. By the narrowest of measures, the initiative’s own project pipeline dried up. Zambia, the initiative’s shining example, appears to have abandoned the program by reverting to backroom solar deals. And judged by its grander mission — a demonstration of how a massive solar rollout could be done efficiently — Scaling Solar has been an even bigger disappointment. In 2022, all of Africa added less new solar capacity than Belgium. That year, at least 30 countries on the continent added no new utility-scale solar capacity at all.

Of course, plenty of reasons explain why an African solar boom has not yet materialized. An array of actors — governments, developers, investors, even environmental activists — have all played a role. And it’s not that the World Bank holds primary responsibility for building solar farms in Africa; it’s that the Bank is the sole global institution that wears all the hats of planner, advisor, and financier for infrastructure, while its mission is to fight poverty and climate change. If any single organization should be ideally placed to catalyze Africa’s solar markets, it’s the World Bank. The organization proudly accepted that mantle to showcase to the world how it could be done. Only it didn’t.

Read the full article here.