China is sometimes accused of practicing neocolonialism in Africa. However China’s relationship and footprints in Africa have mostly grown in the last few decades and many people believe there have been great benefits for Africa. China and Africa has a giver-receiver posture that holds some promises. Poor manufacturing capacity in Africa has relied heavily on excess capacity in China for household and industrial goods that are otherwise uncompetitive or cost prohibitive to produce in Africa. China’s financial muscle has been well flexed in Africa especially in the area of infrastructure; where debt and equity deals have flourished. In all, China seems able and willing to support several promising and emerging markets in Africa.
China’s PV capabilities and strides
However, in this ongoing relationship between the two regions, there appears to be some gaps in coupling China’s lofty strides in utility-scale solar with the gaps and potential of many African countries for on-grid solar power. In late June 2017, wiki-solar issued half-year figures of global utility-scale solar project which has reached 45 GW, with China as one of the leading countries at 11.87 GW of cumulative capacity. China installed 7.21 GW of new solar capacity in Q1 2017. And The China National Renewable Energy Centre, projects that 2017 installed capacity could be in excess of 40 GW. From a manufacturing perspective (China as the home of the world’s largest PV companies), China has PV export capacity (both product and technology) that is in direct demand in Africa.
These scenarios beg several questions. Should China leverage existing and new models of economic and political relationship with Africa to champion the needed proliferation of solar power in Africa? Could China transfer its skills and recent achievements in utility-scale solar to the African solar space, where huge demand makes it a worthwhile venture? How can China move to dominate solar development in Africa where demand continues to rise, in spite of evident challenges?
According to a report by Apricum Consulting, China’s installed utility-scale PV capacity at end 2016 was 67 GW and China’s 2020 target for utility-scale solar (stated in the five year plan to 2020), was exceeded by 22.1 GW in 2016. The case for a properly structured export of solar capacity (technology and product) from China to Africa is buttressed by recent submissions by China’s Securities (International) Research which says “we expect the room for utility-scale solar projects to be limited during the current five-year period (2016 - 2020), given 1) the significant power capacity surplus; and 2) solar installations migrating to Central and Eastern China where suitable land for large-scale solar power stations are scarce.”
Excess capacity seems to be the looming challenge in China where the so called “Standard FiT Build plan”, one of the major national PV programs in China has seen several projects completed that do not benefit from the Feed in Tariff (FiT) in place. The so called FiT Build plan program allocates specific capacities to provinces; with several provinces in China exceeding their allocated quota, which leads to some completed PV projects unable to access the FiT.
Other major national PV programs in China such as, PV for poverty alleviation has several transferable lessons for Africa. The distributed PV frontier; where African households and businesses (especially rural and semi-urban) communities are in dire need of viable solutions is a great example of gaps that China could effectively fill. China’s own growth in the distributed PV space has benefited from conscious efforts and national programs designed to achieve that. A recent report highlights the shift and growing relevance of distributed PV in China, where it accounted for 34% of total installations in Q1 2017, up from the corresponding 14% in Q1 2016.
A new paradigm for solar development
In Africa, many countries realize that expensive and time-consuming grid-scale power projects may not be the only solution for achieving the economic growth and small development victories needed in the short term. Subsequently, there are ongoing efforts in countries like Tanzania, Kenya, Nigeria and Ghana to support and accelerate the growth of distributed solar solutions. Regulations are being reworked, investment incentives provided and advocacy programs launched to help drive the growth of distributed solar. Without asking for any overwhelming tutelage, solar power development in Africa could be structured to benefit from the learning curve and capacity already existing in China. Could the solar growth ambition of African countries - both in policy and real partnerships – be coupled with China, in other to help fast track the growth of solar development in Africa? Apparently, deriving the full benefits of existing or new opportunities will need dedicated channels or programs that help to nurture and sustain meaningful trade partnerships and collaborations.
China’s resent One Belt One Road initiative (OBOR) seems like a channel for accomplishing this. OBOR hopes to link more than 65 countries, encompassing up to 40 percent of global GDP. Two of the five key focus areas of OBOR remain relevant to a possible China-assisted solar power development in Africa and they are Policy Coordination and Trade & Investments.
On the part of African governments - many of whom are West-looking in terms of the energy access crises within the continent - any gesture from the East will be welcome. In 2013, President Barack Obama introduced Power Africa Initiative, a USAID coordinated program that has helped increase US footprints in the African power space. The Europe Union (EU) has power development support initiatives in Africa and the Indian and Japanese governments are reportedly working on a “vision document” for developing an Asia-Africa Growth Corridor largely meant to propel growth and investment in Africa”, according to a Yale report. That might as well include a power initiative (especially solar power development) that highlights both Indian and Japan’s achievement in that area.
With Africa’s receptive posture for foreign support in the area of energy access and China’s evident capacity to provide support; there may be a compelling case and opportunity for closer relationships which will be a win-win situation for China and Africa. comment↓