Despite a huge capacity and skills gap in Africa’s solar PV industry, countries in the region are fast-tracking deployment of the technology. In this way, they're taking advantage of the high quality solar resource to meet the increasing energy demand driven by the growing population, expanding per capital income levels and fast urbanization levels.
Rapid deployment of PV in Africa is also being driven by the “rapid cost reductions being achieved for solar PV due to technological developments and improving learning rate” according to the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA).
The South African Photovoltaic Industry Association (SAPVIA) attributed the steady decrease in PV module prices since 2008 to the rapid increase in global demand which led to economies of scale, fall in the silicon price, improved module manufacturing techniques and improved module efficiencies.
However, tapping into the high technical potential for solar PV in Africa faces the challenge of lack of skills and competencies necessary in the installation, operation and maintenance of the technology’s systems.
Even in South Africa, where ongoing and approved solar PV projects were nearly 1GW by 2014 -- courtesy of the new energy build plan, the Renewable Energy Independent Power Producer Procurement Programme--there is a shortage of adequate skills, which experts say must be addressed to successfully cope with the increasing demand.
Kenya, which plans at least 300MW of solar PV generation by 2030, is another example where the dearth of skilled and trained manpower is a challenge to the uptake of PV use explaining the low installed capacity mainly in lighting, powering electronic equipment, telecommunications, water pumping, refrigeration and electric fencing.
Although the country’s energy sector regulator the Electricity Regulatory Board (ERB) has developed new regulations for renewable energy, solar industry stakeholders say enforcing them will not be easy because of lack of trained manpower and specifically the solar PV technology.
The Kenya Renewable Energy Association (KEREA) for example says although the ERB has through the gazetted Solar PV and Solar Water Heating regulations made it mandatory for installers PV be licensed, the requirements “will be impractical and difficult to enforce because most technicians have no access to a formal course on these technologies.”
A report by the Japan International Co-operation Agency (JICA) said last year that although solar technology has been in Kenya for the last 35 years a period in which 300,000 solar systems were installed “today not even a third of them are functioning as anticipated.” A solar installation should work well for five years without battery replacement while a solar module should enough power for 20 years without any replacement JICA said.
A study by a group of University of Nairobi researchers said last year Kenya has an estimated 800 to 1000 PV technicians since the technology was introduced in the country in the 1980s but “majority of them have the basic skills but no formal training to provide the service.”
“PV application technology is evolving towards very advanced systems but capacity to deal with installations has not been growing in tandem with the advances in the technology,” the study said.
Efforts spearheaded by the private sector, with the backing of government agencies are bearing fruit in some of the countries where PV skills development and low carbon policy implementation have been given priority according to JICA.
For example in South Africa, a private PV solutions company Sun Cybernetics, which specialises in the engineering, procurement and installation of small-scale grid-tied solar systems, has introduced a training programme for beginners and those that want to explore opportunities in installation of PV technology.
Sun Cybernetics sells green energy at a pre-determined rate to specific clients under a power purchase agreement (PPA), and selling quality grid-tied solar PV systems. Marsha Delport, Head Training Coordinator at Sun Cybernetics says the introduction courses initiative is meant to “meet the increasing demand for solar training in South Africa and other African Countries.” Sun Cybernetics is partnering with the Solar Traning Center and the North West University of Potchefstroom in offering the solar training.
“One of the aims is to establish sustainable knowledge transfer by teaching both the practical as well as the theoretical knowledge related to photovoltaic energy solutions,” says Delport. Topics taught include fuse choices, overgvoltage and EMF-protection, monitoring, metering, cabling, electrical circuits, troubleshooting PV plants, module types, project planning, installation and inverters.
The company uses the Sun farming installed PV plant at North-West University as a practical training module for the solar PV introductory courses. “The training showcases the preparation, planning, project execution, installation techniques and commissioning of PV plant installations on different roof areas,” Delport said.
Turkish company, Asunim Turkey, which is one of the international solar companies expected to showcase its technology at the 22nd International Energy & Environment Fair and Conference in Istanbul in late April, also offers tailor-made training programs in different areas of photovoltaic, such as dimensioning, project elaboration and project supervision. The company, which owns Asunim Solar South Africa, says once solar PV companies establish their specific training needs and the objectives the firms hopes to achieve Asunim plans to establish a personalized training program.
And in East Africa, Kenya has now made it mandatory for all technicians and dealers involved in solar PV installations to be licensed by the ERB after passing an industrial examination set the energy sector’s regulator. The test is administration by another government agency, the National Industrial Training Authority (NITA).
“This move is meant to ensure that the quality and standards of the solar PV installations all over the country do not fail consumers. It will also enhance acceptance of this affordable renewable energy source ideal for Kenya, which has plenty of sunshine all year round,” said JICA, one of the organizations supporting the training project in partnership with the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT).
The project, under the Project for Capacity Development for Promoting Rural Electrification Using Renewable Energy (BRIGHT Project), has also partnered with KEREA to conduct Trainer-of-Trainers sessions on solar PV systems for instructors in Kenya technical colleges.
“Those trained will in turn train technicians in their institutions who will eventually serve Kenyans at the grassroots when they graduate and are licensed by ERB,” adds JICA.
The organizations say the project, which is based at JKUAT’s Institute of Energy and Environmental Technology and has links with Japan’s Ashikaga Institute of Technology and Osaka City University “trains technicians who are able to undertake solar PV installations up to world standards.”
Written by Shem Oirere, a freelance writer specializing in solar energy and based in Nairobi.