The Abu Dhabi Fund for Development announced a new loan program that would provide Sierra Leone with Dh 33 million, or about $8.9 million, to construct a new solar power plant near Freetown, the capital and a major urban area. Called Solar Park Freetown, the project would provide an extra six megawatts to Sierra Leone’s already burgeoning solar power networks.
In addition to providing manufacturing jobs to people who need it, Solar Park Freetown will bolster Sierra Leone’s shaky central power supplies. Much of Freetown’s power comes from the Bumbuna Dam, which, according to a 2011 World Bank report, produces less than 20 megawatts of power during the dry season. Sierra Leone’s grid only provides 13 megawatts per million people, about 3.5 times less than nations with similar socio-economic conditions. The weak electrical grid forces many citizens to purchase expensive oil and gas, and electric power remains scarce.
New central solar power initiatives will help solve this problem. Adding to the grid’s capacity with works like Solar Park Freetown will help satisfy energy demands and improve quality of life in Freetown. Dr. Kaifala Mara, Sierra Leone’s Minister of Finance, believes that the project will help people “overcome the difficult economic conditions by improving the performance of the main economic sectors, leading to advancing sustainable development” for the nation.
Centralized power, however, is only part of the story. For the 97 percent of rural Sierra Leoneans who lack access to the grid, individual solar home systems and decentralized generators can provide crucial electric power for a multitude of purposes. In town centers, street lamps run on solar power, and solar radios help citizens communicate and learn about current events. Both homes and community buildings like churches and schools can purchase individual solar energy systems to generate electricity.
The usefulness of solar energy in Sierra Leone creates economic opportunities. Open-air markets selling solar components are common, and installation companies can profit from the demand for new systems. Other entrepreneurs have built solar recharging stations and charge small fees for people to power their smartphones and other mobile devices. Using Sierra Leone’s cell network, which uses solar-powered relay stations, businesses can communicate and share data more easily and optimize earnings.
Despite the explosion of solar technology, obstacles hinder greater national access to electricity. Not all solar panels are created equally, and not all vendors can tell the difference between low-quality and high-quality panels. Moreover, some dishonest manufacturers will claim that their products are better quality than they are or even sell non-functioning parts. Even if everything works, not all Sierra Leoneans have the technical skills to properly install solar systems, making progress slower.
Financing more decentralized solutions can be difficult. Sierra Leone does not offer subsidies to people looking to buy solar home systems, and many people in rural areas are not close enough to banks to get loans. For these reasons, not everyone can afford all of the components needed to generate electricity. Centralized power, especially in urban areas, will need to offset the shortcomings of off-grid systems.
Solar power has the potential to greatly increase energy access in Sierra Leone and accelerate its economic growth. Both internationally financed central power systems like Solar Park Freetown and private solar setups in rural areas will create jobs and provide a stable source of energy for millions.
– Ted Rappleye