How electric cars are changing the African continent, without even being present.
Recently I followed a webinar by Africa’s power journal ESI Africa about renewable energy market developments in Africa. One of the four key global energy megatrends discussed was EV (electric vehicles).
TOYOTA HILUX 2.4GD-6 (diesel powered, not electric) photo published by Leisurewheels.co.za
Based on the research presented there is not so much to be expected from EV in African countries in the next few years. However there is an important side-effect to the global EV market growth that will impact Africa greatly: batteries.
The researcher in the webinar Travis Hough (representing Frost & Sullivan Africa) forecasted that no substantial growth is to be expected from electric cars on the African continent. He compared the growth numbers to Europe and the US, where EV market shares are growing fast.
Nissan (LEAF) and BMW (i3 and i8) are the only brands with presence in Africa, and are both located in South Africa. They have sold about 500 electric vehicles (2013-2016). Worldwide in 2016 about 776.000 EV’s were sold (all brands). South Africa, representing the whole of Africa, currently has a 0,06% share of the 2016 worldwide EV market.
Charging infrastructure is crucial for EV expansion. Across the entire continent, South Africa is the only country with electric vehicle charging stations [Chibelushi, 2016]. When comparing Africa to the US and Europe, it becomes even more clear, that EV’s will not take root in Africa soon. All charing infrastructure combined the US has about 4000 charging units. Europe has up to 105.000 charging units. In South Africa, thus the whole of Africa, there are in total 41 charging stations of which 1 is for public use. Obviously Hough concludes “for the foreseeable future the demand for EV will not be of great significance”.
There are some interesting developments to watch in Uganda and Ghana where tech universities are building solar powered vehicles. Ghana’s Kantaka’s has been selling electric vehicles since 2015 [Shaban, 2017] [Chibelushi, 2016]. It is still too early to forecast whether these vehicles will be sold on a large scale in the near future.
There are three main reasons why the African EV market is not growing as fast as the rest of the world. The range of electric cars is still too short for African driving distances. Only for city driving EV’s could be interesting. However the electric infrastructure needed for charging the EV’s is not available. This is the second problem. There are too little charging stations in the major cities to make buying an EV attractive to consumers. And it is not expected that this will change soon, due to current electricity crises at nearly all African cities. The third reason why the EV market is stagnant in Africa is because (the expectation of) dumping of conventional cars on the African market. While EV’s are getting more and more traction in Europe and the US, diesel and petrol cars will be sold for low prices in Africa. Those cars will be much cheaper than the new EV’s. These three reasons assure there will be no consumer incentive for buying an electric car.
However the impact of global electric vehicle sales on battery development and prices will affect Africa’s future
Due to the rising EV sales worldwide battery prices will continue to drop. Look at the graphic below. In the last 5 years already the battery prices have dropped from USD 900 to USD 300 this year. Hough forecasts a further drop in price going under USD 200 in the next years.
Electricity needs and the crucial role of the battery
The African markets might not be interested in EV’s, but they do want its most important particle: the battery. The electricity problems in the majority of African countries are severe. There is an enormous amount of people with no access to electricity; up to 600 million people have no access to the electric grid (and this number is growing!). On top of that another large amount of people with no access to secure electricity; the 600 million excludes the millions who do have access, but supply is very irregular. The annual usage is much less than the world average: 600 kWh, compared with the world average of 3,064 kWh. The current state of African national electricity grids makes it impossible to offer a grid-based solution for these electricity issues. It is too expensive to update and extend the grids.
July 2017, Minimal Mass
Off-grid electricity systems are the future. They can address and overcome Africa’s electricity problems. So called small scale solar systems are small electricity generation and distribution systems that operate independently from the electricity grid. Powered by local sources of renewable energy, such as river flows, wind, biomass, or the power of the sun. There are many forms of small scale solar technology. The three most important ones are:
- residential solar systems: self supply of electricity per unit (house, office, building) often, but not necessarily connected to the national grid
- microgrids: similar to the national grid except on a smaller scale. Producing electricity needed for a small area. Microgrids can be independent or connected to the national grid. Electricity flows through wired connections from generating source [solar plant] to user
- micro utilities are not connected to the national grid and instead have a battery based distribution system making it possible to operate in rural areas, far from the national grid, [with users] scattered far apart, sometimes over difficult terrain [Van der Walt R.J , 2013, Stellenbosch University, ‘Micro-utilities for rural electrification in South Africa using solar energy’].
In order to realize these ‘personal power plants’ and for them to be really useful and viable, we need to pay close attention to storage of electricity. Especially when renewable energy is solar based, electricity demand [for consumers at least] is peaking at night time. “The biggest power demand [..] is at night, when lights, TVs, and sound systems come on. That is not a great match with solar energy production, which of course is in daylight hours. […] you need battery storage sufficient for at least 24 hours of use.” [Pearce, 2015]. So when talking about electricity and off-grid solutions, energy storage is a key issue.
Adding a battery to your solar system will increase your investment significantly. But it is necessary for off-grid solar energy to be successful. The battery development is one to follow, and directly relates to EV market developments. Some argue for years now that solar systems with storage are becoming affordable to the masses any day now. “[…] given the plummeting cost of solar power and the introduction of game-changing backup batteries — the time is now for solar + storage in affordable housing.” [Mazur, 2015]. Others say batteries have not changed that much since the first battery was made. And are also critical of the prices and its potential to drop over the next years.
Whether optimistic or not, this is definitely a key factor to take into account. And the research presented by Frost and Sullivan is very positive indeed. As the image below shows, the African battery storage market is a growing one. This forecast shows a steep increase in installed capacity in the next 8 years based on installed capacity that is also increasing, especially for remote power systems.
Without having much physical presence in Africa, these electric vehicles will change the continent. They will be a driving force in making electricity available and affordable for millions of people throughout Africa.
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