Ambitious solar power project threatened by mismanagement

Poor planning, maintenance and technical support are amongst the factors threatening to undermine an ambitious effort to electrify Senegal’s remote Sine Saloum Delta using solar energy.

Another major problem is people’s lack of willingness or ability to pay the fees for the photovoltaic systems.

“The problem has become a vicious circle,” said a technician with the company responsible for maintaining solar systems for 10,000 individual homes. He asked not to be named. “We don’t have the capacity or funds to change all the old batteries and keep all the parts in working order. If we can’t keep up the maintenance, the systems will become less and less effective and fewer users will pay the fees we rely on to maintain the systems in the first place,” he said.

Currently only 30 percent of the homeowners with solar systems are paying, he said.

Many of the locals told IRIN the fee was too high. “We’re just subsisting here on fish and millet,” said a woman with six children. “It’s too much to ask us to pay.”

The Japanese and Spanish governments provided grants and loans to the Senegalese government starting in 2000 for what they hoped would become a low-cost, environmentally-friendly means of providing electricity to the remote islands and inlets of the delta, an area which would be difficult to join to the national grid.

Donors watching closely

Individual and communal solar systems have brought electricity to over 170,000 people in Sine Saloum which lies south of Dakar near the border with The Gambia. The project is the largest of its kind in Senegal and experts say donors are watching it closely to gauge whether solar energy could be a practical means of electrifying other rural areas.

“The outcome of the Sine Saloum project is terribly important,” Bob Freling, executive director of Solar Electric Light Fund, a US non-governmental organisation (NGO) working in rural areas in Africa, told IRIN. “If projects like this run into sustainability problems there will be negative repercussions for a lot of industry players.”

“What you’ll get is an unnecessary lack of confidence in the most solid and viable solution for rural electrification,” he said.

Critics of solar power consider it expensive and undependable, particularly when there is cloud cover. But other experts say technological advances in the last decade have made solar cells less expensive and more efficient. “Solar energy technologies have matured,” Freling said, “They are now more reliable and have always been more energy efficient than diesel.”

Light, TV, radio

The people in the delta who initially received solar power also saw it as the best and only energy solution. “These systems are really helpful when they work. We have access to light, TV and radio,” said Abdou Diouf, the chief of Mar Lodj, the village where an initial 100 systems were installed in 2000.

Seven solar powered grinding mills installed in the village in 2003 are all still functioning. “The mills help us do our work quickly. We can make more money this way,” said Mamadou Tidian, a Mar Lodj resident.

Solar power also provides lighting for schools, health clinics and homes and has increased the number of tourists visiting guest lodges in the area, local people said.

Questions over durability, maintenance

However, they also see that the systems are not lasting. “The original solar systems built in 2000 are now all starting to fail,” the chief said, “and I worry that the newer ones will soon go the same way.”

Individual solar home systems cost around US$500 each. They consist of a panel installed on people’s corrugated iron or thatched roofs, plus cabling and a battery to store the energy. “This is a one-time cost and after that maintenance is easy,” says Freling.

However, though maintenance is easy, it is lacking in the delta and has become a big problem. Parts and batteries are not being replaced, reducing the capacity of the systems to store electricity.

Training, capacity-building

Freling said local technicians need to be trained. “Unfortunately, the companies that install systems aren’t always focused on capacity building. Sustainability depends on the care you take to train the local community.”

The village chief blames Senegalese contractor, Matforce, which installed the original solar systems. “They never even came back to do the maintenance they were supposed to do,” said Diouf, the chief.

Matforce project manager Mohammed Diop denies the accusation. “Matforce performed all necessary maintenance for the first four years until ASER [the Senegalese Agency for Rural Electrification] failed to renew our contract after 2005 and so we left.”

ASER replaced Matforce with another Senegalese contractor, Equiplus. But it has only one technician based in the area who is responsible for all 10,000 home systems. The technician said he is paid directly by the homeowners with solar systems. “They are supposed to pay 3,750 CFA [about US$7.50] a month for upkeep. With that money I have to travel around the area to survey the systems, purchase and replace parts and also support myself,” he said.

Eighty-five percent of the seven million people that live in rural Senegal lack access to electricity. Over 500 million people in sub-Saharan Africa lack access to electricity, according to the World Bank.