Off-grid Solar in Angola: The Future is Cloudy
By Branden Oliver
Although the international community signaled its intention to end energy poverty through various United Nations’ efforts – including Sustainable Development Goal 7: universal access to modern energy while also doubling the share of renewable energy in the global energy mix – the ability to achieve this goal ultimately results from efforts undertaken within a state. Sub-Saharan Africa in particular faces challenges as its population growth exceeds the electrification rate. In the spirit of this global effort, Angola released the Angola Energy 2025 strategy document that provides a high-level overview of the policies intended to raise its electrification rate. The strategy dedicated an entire section to electrification for rural areas based on off-grid renewable technologies. This is an important component since the low population density makes grid expansion infeasible for parts of the country and it has abysmally low rural electrification rates, a result of over a quarter-century of near continuous civil war. Angola’s strategy included many key components of an effective electrification program using off-grid renewables, opportunities exist for improvement to ensure the sustainability of the program.
The fall in the price of off-grid renewable systems, particularly solar home systems, can help the international community achieve universal electrification since they can provide electricity to isolated communities that otherwise would not receive access to the grid in the near-term. Small solar home systems, that can power a few lightbulbs and small appliances, have received particular attention given the drastic fall in prices for solar panels. These systems increase access to modern energy and increase the total amount of energy generation from renewable sources. While consumers in developing countries may perceive electrification from off-grid technologies as inferior to electrification from the grid, it can alleviate the most abject energy poverty in a cost-effective manner.
Angola’s strategy document laid out policy suggestions that align with other successful rural electrification programs based on off-grid technologies. The strategy called for the creation of “solar villages”. These solar villages would receive solar panels for community facilities. The government sought to create a rural electrification authority that would oversee the implementation of this program. The strategy document called for the rural electrification authority to implement the solar village program, coordinate electrification activities between provincial and national governments, provide affordable financing so that rural household could afford solar home systems, and foster private sector participation. Rural electrification authorities that coordinate policy implementation and work with the private sector to ensure affordable electricity can form the basis of successful electrification campaigns. The Angolan government also identified the importance of accessible and affordable credit because rural households often cannot afford the upfront costs associated with solar home systems.
While Angola’s strategy, as drafted in 2014, included many of the important policy suggestions needed for a successful rural electrification program using off-grid technologies, the implementation created spaces for improvement. The “solar villages” fractured into two initiatives. The first implemented the program outlined in the strategy document. The program distributed solar kits and solar-powered street lamps to rural communities. However, the exact implementation raises questions about the sustainability of the model. The government of Angola awarded the contract for the distribution of the kits to a company based in the capital, Luanda. The second program involved the construction of an actual village powered by solar electricity outside of the capital. The government inaugurated this project in 2014 but did not let people move in until 2017, by this time many of the houses were uninhabitable due to vandalism and weathering. Overly centralized models with urban-based businesses can lead to poor performance of the solar systems as they often lack the capability to maintain and service systems installed in isolated areas. The government did create a dedicated electrification agency, the National Directorate of Rural and Local electrification, but it appears that it is not fully empowered in its mandate to oversee the solar village program – instead, the National Director of Renewable Energy implemented the project. The lack of clear responsibilities between these two organizations can lead to bureaucratic inefficiencies and stymie the effectiveness of rural electrification through the duplication of efforts. To ensure the long-term sustainability of this approach, the government should promote grassroots participation through the entire lifecycle of a project so that the project meets the needs of end-users, and the end-users the resources to maintain the project. The government should fully empower the National Directorate of Rural and Local Electrification to fulfill its mandate as envisioned in the Angola Energy 2025 strategy.
The achievement of universal electrification by 2030 remains an ambitious goal. Success ultimately depends on the policies implemented by national governments. The governments do face resource constraints but with effective policy and international support these constraints can be overcome. The government of Angola’s proactive efforts provide an effective framework for addressing low levels of electrification in rural areas. However, the policies as implemented created opportunities for improvement.
Branden Oliver is an M.A. candidate concentrating in Energy, Resources, and Environment at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS)