Renewable energy technologies are getting a boost in Africa, driven by the need to power base stations for mobile phone operators in rural areas that are unconnected to national power grids.
Several western companies are introducing technologies to help mobile phone operators and the financial sector power data centers and networks. They are also selling low-cost solar mobile chargers, enabling subscribers to charge their phones in addition to lighting their homes.
France's Schneider Electric, the U.K.'s SunnyMoney and the U.S.-based World Panel are among the companies that are battling to outdo each other in rolling out solar technologies to power mobile phone base stations and data centers.
Schneider Electric said it plans to create access to renewable energy for 20,000 Africans by the end of this year to enable them to charge their phones and have continued access to mobile communications. It has also developed renewable energy solutions for mobile network operators that could help them power their base stations and extend services in rural areas.
Schneider's Villasol and VillaSmart photovoltaic panel systems, which are representative of the offerings from the other companies as well, are able to generate up to 24 kilowatts of power per day, enough to run a base station, or electrify a health center or school. The prices differ widely from one country to another depending on distribution agreements, but prices range from $2000 to $5000.
When fully charged, Schneider's Mobiya solar lamp and phone charger can provide light for 48 hours But when used simultaneously for lighting and charging mobile phones, it can run from six to 12 hours. The price ranges from $40 to $50.
SunnyMoney is also rolling out its solar technology in the region in order to provide renewable energy to those not connected to the national grid. It's The S2 solar-powered light runs for 4-5hrs. The Barefoot Power unit (15 watts) provides both lighting and a mobile phone charging system. Prices range from $30 to $50.
Mobile phone operators in Africa have been slow in expanding their networks to rural areas due to concerns about the economic viability of running base stations using expensive diesel-powered generators.
Schneider Electric is providing solutions to all sectors of society to address energy poverty, its head of sustainable development for Southern Africa, Zanelle Dalglish, told IDG. It has "developed renewable energy solutions for mobile phones operators that could help them to power their base stations and allow people in rural areas to communicate," she said.
World Panel Zambia Ltd. executive director Jacob Sikazwe said, "our technology empowers people, especially those in rural areas as the mobile solar chargers are meant for people who have challenges accessing electricity."
Over the last decade, Zambia and neighboring countries including Zimbabwe, Botswana, Namibia and Democratic Republic of Congo have been suffering from a substantial power deficit because the demand for electricity has outstripped supply, leading to a new challenge of load shedding, according to Zambian minister of Mines, Energy and Water Development Christopher Yaluma.
The influx of renewable energy technology companies will help to mitigate the power shortage effects, Yaluma said. And the introduction of solar mobile chargers will help bring about an inclusive society in which everyone would have an opportunity to have access to renewable energy, he added.
According to current statistics from the Zambian government, only 8.8 percent of the country's 14 million people have access to electricity from the national grid.