The 5 largest solar plants in Africa

Africa is endowed with a rich bounty of natural resources. The sun is one of them.  Generally referred to as the “sunny continent”, Africa is the sunniest place on earth. Despite its fortunate conditions, the penetration of solar power in Africa’s energy mix is still shallow and its massive PV potential remains untapped. Africa has been historically relying on hydropower, which is, unfortunately, decreasing as the climate changes are causing water crisis in the continent (Fougieres, 2019). As per the estimates, more than 645 million people of this content have no access to electricity and rely on coal, wood, etc. for meeting their daily energy requirements. This heavy reliance on fossil fuels is causing great concerns for the world environment due to such a large amount of CO2 emissions. This situation has the potential of getting even worse, as the continent’s population is expected to reach three billion by the year 2050.

Renewable energy is considered the future of the world mostly because of its clean nature and sustainability in comparison to the energy coming from fossil fuels. A couple of decades ago, the concept of renewable energy was not commercially feasible because of the high manufacturing and installation cost of PV units. However, in the last few years, countries around the world are investing heavily in renewable sources of energy to meet their consumption goals more sustainably. Environmental concerns and the cost of the potential damage brought by the climate change is the main reason for developing countries to shift their focus from conventional ways of producing energy towards renewable sources such as wind, solar, biomass and geothermal, etc.

Drivers and opportunities

Africa has all the chances to become a powerful solar hub thanks to its geographical suitability. The region arguably revives more amount of daylight per year than any other continent, which makes PV panels to be a feasible replacement of fossil fuels. The region spends almost 10 billion USD every year on the import of fuel for producing electricity. This amount could be reduced down to the minimum level by shifting towards renewable resources. PV installation is very simple and doesn’t need too many technicalities upfront. Moreover, the maintenance cost is almost nothing compared to thermal stations. Portability is another positive aspect, as the solar kits could be installed or integrated into any appliance of the household supply, as an off-grid plant. This added advantage makes it feasible for this energy system to be installed in Africa’s remote areas where there is no established infrastructure of transmission line and grid connectivity.


Despite having favorable conditions, and so many positives aspects of adopting this technology, Africa still has very few major PV plants so far.

Financial constraints

Even though PV plants have a negligible cost on maintenance and operation, the installation cost is still very high compared to conventional resources. PV panel’s design and manufacturing are very high. So far the efficiency level that has been achieved is less than 30 percent. Batteries, solar charge controllers, inverters, and other supporting components can further increase the initial cost way beyond the reach of a common man. In addition to that, there is no government support in terms of offered incentives to big manufacturers and dealers of PV equipment. Companies are reluctant to invest heavily in a market that has no assurance of the return on investment.

Lack of awareness

People living in remote African areas are not too educated to understand the importance of off-grid PV installation in their household. There are no significant entrepreneurial trends in this region, and people don’t realize how dangerous the burning of the fuel is to their health and global environment. Furthermore, the product being sold in the market are of low quality and the feedback coming from users hasn’t been satisfying.

No access to technical support service

One way of countering the product quality issues in this region is to have effective technical assistance provided by solar manufacturing and distribution companies. But, its importance is yet to be realized by the giants of this industry, and as a result, no maintenance or repair facility available in the region can earn the trust of end-users on this technology.

What are the largest photovoltaic plants in Africa?

Noor Solar complex

This project is the largest solar power generation unit of Africa in terms of capacity, and the largest concentrated solar power (CSP) project in the world (Aimani, 2019). It is established in the Ouarzazate city of Agadir district in Morocco. This region is generally considered as a very favorable region for receiving sunlight, which amounts to around 2635 Kwh/m^2/year. Moroccan government officially began the phase 1 construction in 2014, with initial projection to have a generation capacity of 176 MW. The first phase was completed in 2016, while the next 3 phases, Noor II with the capacity of 200 MW, Noor III with 150 MW and Noor IV with 72 MW were also added in coming years to accumulate the total generation capacity of the unit to be 782 MW, covering an enormous 25000-hectare land. This project is part of Morocco’s plans of reducing import-based electricity consumption to almost single digits by adding 2 GW of renewable power in their system by 2020. About half a million mirrors were used in phase 1, with an overall cost of 3.9 billion USD. The second phase of this project, Noor II, introduced parabolic trough technology, which uses molten salt to store energy in the day time, to compensate for irradiance decrease in low light hours of the day. Environmental benefits of this plant are also very significant, as all phases of the plant are estimated to offset 533,000 tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions each year (Noor Ouarzazate Solar complex, 2020).

De Aar Solar Power

This PV plant is South Africa’s biggest project, located in a town name “De Aar”, in Northern Cape Province. The covered area of this plant is about 100 hectares with the total number of installed solar panels to be 167,580. The distribution contract has been assigned to the Eskom distribution system for 20 years. It is one of the first solar project of the continent which was specifically designed to integrate generated power to the utility grid. This means that the plant had additional facilities to regulate frequency and phase voltages to synchronize with the power being transmitted through the utility grid. However, the drawback that it faces was during the days of peak generation, as the grid was unable to take additional supply, and therefore a lot of energy was wasted in the process (Inside Africa’s largest solar farm, 2016). Initially, the first phase of this project was designed to generate 85MW of clean power, which was considered as the largest of that time in the southern hemisphere. In its second phase, another 90MW was added in generation capacity, taking the whole project to 175MW, providing electricity almost 19000 average-sized houses in the area. (Ms. Tina Joemat-Pettersson, 2020)

Benban Solar Park

This is Egypt’s largest PV project Benban solar complex, is named after a village closed to the Nile River. This project is constructed on the eastern Sahara desert, estimated to produce 1.8 GW of power from its 41 plants combined. The project is being completed in different phases and integration of various small scale plants. So far, 786 MW of power has been installed in this massive complex, and more of the installation is planned to be completed by 2035, with an initial target of fulfilling the country’s 20% of electricity demand by 2022. The area required for this project is around 37.5 Km^2, provided by the government of Egypt to New and renewable energy authority (NREA). All the 41 plants are to be developed in the range of 0.3 to 1.0 km area. Out of these 41 plants, “infinity 50” is the biggest generation unit, with an average output of 64.1MW. In addition to that, Scatec solar has developed six more solar plants, with a combined capacity of 400 MW. Three more projects, Phoenix 50, BSEP 50, and MMID 30 are also generating 166.5 MW combined. The major financial investment comes from a consortium, mainly including the African development bank, and the Asian Infrastructure investment bank (AIIB), Arab Bank of Bahrain, and the CDC of the United Kingdom. Benban complex has generated more than 10000 jobs for the local community, and once the project is completed, around 4000 people will be involved in managing its operations. Furthermore, it is also expected to avoid 2 million tons of CO2 emissions every year, to contribute to saving the global environment (Nordrum, 2019).

Ilanga Concentrated Solar Power 1

This is another project, fully installed with the capacity of 100MW, located in Northern Cape province of South Africa, around 30 Km towards the east of Upington. Ilanga 1 is expected to provide an on-demand power supply to its connected loads for the next 20 years, which is almost in a similar manner as any conventional source of energy with no additional fuel costs or any harmful emissions. This project is also using concentrated solar power, to compensate for the low light hours. Parabolic trough technology used in this project concentrates the irradiance in a large solar field and generates thermal energy to generate steam for driving a 100MW steam turbine engine. This plant has the potential to provide electricity to 0.1 million households in the region and can save up to 5 hours of electricity using CSP for providing stored backup at night. Environmental impact is also very appealing, as the plant will help in reducing 340000 tons of annual CO2 emission (Ondrey, 2018).

Kathu Solar Park

In 2010, during an ongoing power crisis in South Africa, this project got its start. It was planned to be constructed in 2 phases between 2012 and 2014. Initially, it faced a funding crisis and was put on hold for a year. However, in 2011, the government formulated a policy to brace itself for another imminent power crisis and resumed the work on its planning. It was designed to have a total capacity of 100MW, and molten load storage capacity 4.5 hours as on full load as a backup and utilizes parabolic trough technology using concentrated solar power (CSP). It is also located in the Northern Cape Province of South Africa, near village Kathu of Kalahari desert (Kathu Solar Park). The project has the potential of fulfilling the daily electricity demand of 179000 homes, and green energy supply to offset 6 million tons of CO2 from the region. The construction of the project started in 2016 and had created around 1700 jobs, mostly for the local community (Kathu Solar Park constructed by ACCIONA and Sener enters commercial operation, 2019).

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