- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 22, 2004

TANGHIN DASSOURI, Burkina Faso - Solar panels perched on the roof of Tanghin Dassouri’s medical clinic have lit two decades of births and deaths for the 60,000 people in this cluster of villages just outside Ouagadougou.

“It’s feeble, but it’s better than nothing,” said Sister Georgette Ilboudo, one of the nurses who tends to patients in the mud-walled clinic with the faint buzz of the solar current in the background.

Energy specialists believe that panels like these could breed a revolution in renewable energy for the world’s poorest — and, many believe, sunniest — continent.

Mindful of rising prices for fossil fuels and Africa’s shrinking forests, as well as of the growing population of unemployed, African heads of state have begun to take a closer look at the feasibility of developing the alternative-energy sector.

Creating jobs in renewable-resource management was among key recommendations this month at an anti-poverty summit of some 20 heads of state who gathered in Ouagadougou under the aegis of the African Union.

“If the states take concrete action to support evolving activity in the sector, there will come a time that we can use local materials and artisanal labor to harness the sun,” said Issa Bikienga of the Permanent Interstate Committee for Drought Control in the Sahel (CILSS).

“Here we are with this ample resource, and we are not using it to our advantage,” for pumping water, lighting and refrigeration, he added.

“In the Sahel, 40 percent of people do not have access to drinking water. We can use solar to help.”

Advances in technology have helped bring the price of photovoltaic panels down substantially, helping light villages across the continent — where grid electricity is a distant promise — for one-tenth the 1980s cost.

Still, at $600 for a pair of 40-watt panels, solar-powered electric lighting remains beyond the reach of rural Africans, most of whom survive on less than $1 a day.

Add the cost of import tariffs and the pages of pedantic regulations “and you are looking at a perfect way to squander something that could be of such benefit,” said Malakilo Diasso, who in 1979 was the first solar-panel dealer in sunny, landlocked Burkina Faso.

“If you have a centralized, high-powered system, you can light up a village of 20,000 people. What is needed is the courage from government to say that this is feasible.”

The U.N. Environment Program (UNEP) champions microcredits to develop the sector as a way for rural landholders to pay for their solar energy in installments.

“Right now, it means that Africans have to finance 20 years of electricity upfront,” noted Eric Usher, a UNEP renewable-energy expert.

“Why should a poor farmer in Mali have to do that while someone in California does not?”

Cutting tariffs, which in the nine CILSS countries average more than 100 percent, is the easiest ways to boost the sector, said Lincoln Dahl, whose U.S.-based African Energy company distributes panels wholesale to small and medium-size companies around the continent.

“Solar materials are duty-free in Kenya, the market is competitive, the margins are thin and it is working well,” he told AFP by telephone from extremely sunny Arizona.

“Renewables are good energy for countries — if they make it easy and let it roll.”

Such enthusiasm for solar energy may be lost on Tanghin Dassouri, where utility poles were installed two months ago.

“It might be two years before the cables are installed, so for now we will be happy with the panels,” said Pastor Etienne Kabre. “But as soon as we get electricity, well, I think the panels will have to go.”

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