Harnessing the sun Scatec’s Kalkbult plant in the Karoo, the first solar energy plant to feed into the South African national grid. Picture: LONI PRINSLOO
Harnessing the sun Scatec’s Kalkbult plant in the Karoo, the first solar energy plant to feed into the South African national grid. Picture: LONI PRINSLOO

A common misconception in the discourse about renewable energy is that it is reserved for wealthy nations or the developed world.

Critics of green energy claim the rest of the world cannot afford to invest in alternative energy sources. However, the notion that "low cost" and "low carbon" technologies are mutually exclusive is simply not true.

Solar photovoltaic (PV) generation costs are decreasing, and in most countries the cost of PV power is already lower than new coal and gas. In need of new energy sources, developing nations have also increased their spending on wind, hydropower and solar infrastructure.

Europe and North America got where they are by using dirty but inexpensive energy sources — oil and coal — to fuel cheap production and manufacturing. They are now in an advantageous position because their economies have the headroom required to manage the transition to renewables.

Germany, in particular, used its feed-in tariff policy to stimulate a green business sector that would deliver products to the rest of the world for years.

Historically in climate change discussions developing nations argued for their need to develop with cheap coal and oil, without repercussions for commitments to reduce greenhouse gases.

Now developing countries are poised to benefit from investment in renewables because many are starting to accept that overreliance on fossil fuels is costly and unsustainable. Green energy has the potential to drive inclusive growth, create jobs and stimulate "healthier and happier development", as Erik Solheim, head of the UN Environment Programme, put it.

China, notorious for poor air quality, is leading the pack by investing in technologies that would reduce reliance on coal. According to a report by the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, China’s investment in clean energy projects was more than $44bn in 2017 and $32bn in 2016. It is now seen as driving solar energy investment.

India’s initiatives are also lighting the way for the Global South. The World Bank Group is helping India scale up its solar projects to provide electricity to the roughly 300-million people not connected to the national grid. Prime Minister Narendra Modi wants to generate 100GW of solar power by 2022.

SA can strategically grow its domestic economy by investing in renewable energy. A recent significant moment for the industry was when Energy Minister Jeff Radebe ended years of delays by signing 27 renewable energy independent power purchase agreements amounting to an investment in SA of R56bn.

These projects are expected to add about 2,300MW to the national grid over the next five years. During the signing ceremony Radebe acknowledged the new energy mix would help drive down the cost of electricity and that these projects would deliver much-needed power to low-income households.

In countries where businesses are inhibited by unreliable yet expensive coal-generated electricity, solar-assisted success stories are showing what can be achieved with renewable power.

For example, a manufacturing company in Gauteng’s East Rand will typically pay an average electricity tariff of R1.21 per kWh. However, for it to go off-grid entirely, using a combination of solar PV, batteries and gas generation, would cost an average of 99c/kWh — reducing its operating costs.

A business in Accra could enjoy the same benefits by going off grid: the average electricity tariff in the Ghanaian city is $0.19/kWh, while a solar power purchase agreement could provide electricity at $0.13/kWh.

Industries in developing countries can operate carbon-free, without compromising on reliability or the quality of energy supply. The lack of infrastructure in some regions allows for a decentralised, solar-powered system to take shape.

The nations that will have the cheapest cost of energy in the future will be the ones with the highest solar resources.

Africa has this advantage over most developed nations and has the opportunity to grow with cheaper, low-carbon electricity, surpassing the need for "dirty" development.

• Wills is the CEO of SOLA Future Energy