Solar power is available to more people spread over vast areas than nuclear energy.
Mali and Burkina Faso recently signed nuclear power deals with Russia. But building nuclear plants might mean they may have to borrow money for an energy source they don’t have expertise for, to produce electricity that can’t be efficiently distributed. And both have the potential for vast solar industries.
Details on the nuclear deals are scarce and it isn’t clear if the move is more a political one than a practical step towards construction. The two countries have been alienated since their recent coups. Russia is similarly isolated and looking for partners.
Local news outlet Mali Jet has reported that Mali expects to build two to four small power plants, with a capacity of 55 megawatts each, over the next seven years.
Half of the country’s 23 million people don’t have access to electricity. That number is highest in rural areas. And Abdoulaye Gackou, a Malian energy engineer, argues that people in the Sahel are too isolated for centralised generation to make sense.
“A nuclear station provides power galore in a concentrated area. But sometimes, between the first electric pole and the next village, there are a hundred kilometres. Running a cable over that distance to supply just 20 houses is not cost-effective,” Gackou said.
Gackou co-founded Bamako-based startup Yeelen Solar and argues that “solar energy can help overcome this problem” with the construction of small grids that can supply just one village.
The African Development Bank, which intends to find nearly $1 billion for a solar power initiative across the 12 countries of the Sahel, appears to concur. The bank’s Desert to Power initiative is initially focusing on the G5 Sahel — Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger — where it intends to connect 6.3 million households to decentralised energy solutions. But the gap to be met is quite wide. Of the five, Mali has the highest access to electricity and even there, more than a million households don’t have it. In Burkina Faso and Chad, where power reaches less than 20% and 13% of the people respectively, the need is even more dire.
For Delwendé Nabayaogo, a safety expert at Burkina Faso’s national authority for radiation protection and nuclear safety, talk of building nuclear power plants in the near future implies looming technical and economic dependency. In his experience, these countries don’t have trained technicians, engineers, and scientists to set up and run nuclear plants.
“If we’re totally dependent on Russian human resources, it’s not an attractive option for the countries,” Nabayaogo says.
He predicts that the countries in question will be dependent on Russian experts as they train their own people.
Moreover, these countries will probably have to borrow from Russia to pay the Russians who will set up and run these plants. In Egypt, Russia’s state energy company Rosatom is building a $28.75 billion nuclear power plant with a capacity to produce 4 800 megawatts. Russia will lend Egypt $25 billion of that, to be paid over 22 years at an annual interest of 3%.
These complexities make investing further in solar energy development seem all the more sensible for Sahel countries.
The region, which stretches from northern Senegal in the west to the east coast of Sudan, is seen as the best in the world to get solar energy because the sun shines for most of the year.
The Desert to Power initiative alone has the potential to produce enough solar power to provide clean energy for 250 million people, according to the Africa Development Bank.
And with the right infrastructure solar could be further harnessed for export.
Solar energy can be to the Sahel what nuclear energy is for Russia: a niche that positions it as a global energy supplier.
This article first appeared in The Continent, the pan-African weeklynewspaper produced in partnership with the Mail & Guardian. It’s designed to be read and shared on WhatsApp. Download your free copy here.