It is sad to see that it is almost 2024 and we still have over six hundred million people in Africa without access to electricity. Distributed renewable energy plants can play a key role in increasing access to electricity in off-grid applications as well as offer crucial support in urban centers that have weak and intermittent grids. However, the costs of acquiring these solar and battery systems have been beyond the reach of most people in many places in Africa and other parts of the world due to several factors, including lower earnings resulting in lower disposable incomes, as well as limited financing platforms, especially for larger solar and battery installations.
There is some good news. A lot has changed in the industry since I started working actively in the solar sector in 2015. These developments are making solar panels and advanced battery storage systems more affordable and accessible. This has been driven by the massive technological advancements in the battery storage and solar panel sectors, resulting in higher energy density batteries at a much lower price as production capacity of batteries continues to grow exponentially, plus improvements in the efficiency of solar panels.
All the progress made so far will help increase access to cleaner energy technologies and access to energy in general, where it is desperately needed. To show just how much progress has been made, I recently found some interesting information as I was going through some of my old personal files the other day. I bumped into a quote for a home solar system with battery backup. Back then in this part of the world, essentially all solar systems that included battery backup had lead acid batteries. Some of the common batteries that local solar product distributors and installers used were the 12V, 225Ah types. So, for one of these you are looking at about 2.7kWh of energy storage, of which under the common cycling recommendations of the maximum 50% depth of discharge regime, one really would have access to about 1.35kWh, to prolong the life of the batteries. In 2016, one of these batteries would retail for about $600 in Zimbabwe.
After looking through a few quotes I received from a couple of installers in 2016, I noticed that for a residential solution consisting of about 6kWp of solar panels, a 7kW inverter plus associated equipment, and about 16kWh of usable battery storage capacity from a lead acid battery bank after factoring in the 50% DoD, the cost of such a system was well over $34,000, including installation.
Fast forward to 2023, and the cost of a similar system using an 8kW hybrid inverter coupled with about 8kWp of solar panels plus a 15kWh LFP battery pack, the total cost of this kind of residential system is now around $14,000 including installation. Imagine that! In just 7 years, people that would have needed $34,000 for this size of solar home system that had lead acid batteries now “only” need about $14,000 to get the same size system. They now get a package that is even better, as it includes longer lasting LFP batteries and new generation of inverters that have longer warranty periods. Besides the drastic drop in upfront purchase costs and the increase in warranty periods, customers now also get several other benefits including aesthetic ones, especially on the battery storage, as the large space-consuming lead acid battery banks have been replaced by a wall mounted “powerwall” style battery that stores the same amount of usable energy in a smaller footprint and in a nice form factor.
You can even get a 5kWh wall-mounted LFP battery pack for $999 now in Zimbabwe. Imagine that. From a $600 (2.7kWh) lead acid battery (1.35kWh at recommended 50% DoD) to a 5kWh LFP pack for $999 in just 7 years! If you factor in all the inflation over that period, the price drop is even more remarkable. Another interesting point is that back in 2016, the most common solar panels in Zimbabwe from the leading retailers were 250W to 280W panels. Now most retailers only stock 555W panels. Back in 2016, solar panels were going for about seventy cents per Watt. In 2023, they are now going for about fourteen cents per Watt, and some forecasts say that they could be at ten cents per Watt by the end of next year.
Technological advancements have also meant that integration of system components is now much simpler, resulting in shorter installation times, cutting down installation costs. Installations in the most common setups use central battery inverters in conjunction with central solar inverters. Hybrid inverters have since gained a lot of traction resulting in massive improvements by combining the separate battery and solar inverters into a single system that integrates an inverter and a DC-DC converter to connect both battery and solar at shared sites, cutting installation time and costs.
In this article I have used an example of a solar and battery system that goes into a larger home or small office, but it applies to smaller home systems as well, meaning that families with smaller loads and smaller budgets are now also benefiting from these developments and massive price drops in the cost of solar equipment. Zimbabwe and South Africa continue to experience prolonged spells of electricity rationing, for example. That means more people can now be in a position to acquire this equipment than 7 years ago. In the near future, more people will be able to get access to more reliable, longer lasting solar and battery equipment. As the transition to electric mobility accelerates, second life batteries will become more prevalent, further reducing the costs of stationary battery storage, helping to further catalyze the adoption of solar and battery storage for homes, businesses, rural minigrids, and other cool applications. The future is going to be awesome!