Mission (Im)possible? Solar Power for Everyone

How does it feel to live without electricity? This is something that Souleymane Niang can still remember all too well. Growing up in a village in Senegal, up to the age of 12 he did his homework by the light of a sooty petroleum lamp. Today, an industrial engineer, he is developing the market for PV-diesel hybrid systems in the Earth’s Sunbelt region for SMA — and is playing an instrumental role in ensuring that nobody living in developing and newly industrialized countries will ever have to live without electricity again.

When Souleymane Niang visited his uncle, a professor, in the Senegalese city of Dakar in the early 1980s, as he often used to do on Saturdays, his ears pricked up. The professor was talking to a colleague about the opportunities that the widespread use of photovoltaics would open up for the economic develop­ment of Africa. The high school graduate Niang was immediately fascinated by the idea and wanted uncon­ditionally to help make it a reality. He applied for a scholarship at a German university and resolved to then return to his native country of Senegal and use his knowledge as an industrial engineer to develop the pro­cess of electrification in his country using solar energy.

1.3 billion is the number of people worldwide who still do not have access to electricity, and thereby to economic development

But then everything turned out differently. During his studies, Niang fell in love with a German woman and they started a family together. However, the thought of photovoltaics never left his mind. And so he didn’t have to think about it for too long, when in 2006 he was offered the opportunity to build up SMA’s international service. After all, SMA develops products, including stand-alone photovoltaic solutions, making it a pioneer in the electrification of rural areas that have lots of sunshine and are without a utility grid. Internationally reliable service plays a vital role in this.


Photovoltaics allows for independence from expensive diesel fuel 

Eight years later and SMA now has an unparalleled global service infrastructure. And Niang has found a new challenge at the company, in which he can play an even more direct role in giving people in developing and newly industrialized countries access to electricity and thus to economic development. He is now responsible for developing the PV-diesel hybrid system market on SMA’s behalf. The aim is to reduce the dependency that companies and entire communities in off-grid areas have on expensive diesel fuel by integrating photovoltaics into existing or newly installed diesel power supplies.

Right from the start, the 50-year-old was all fired up about his new assignment. “What we’re doing here has social relevance,” stressed Niang. “Solving the energy question is fundamental for the further development of countries in the Earth’s Sunbelt. This can never be achieved by expanding the local diesel power supply because diesel fuel is expensive and damaging to the environment. Conventional large-scale power plants are not a good alternative either. Constructing them takes far too long and costs vast amounts of money. Simply put, photovoltaics is the most cost-effective and sustaina-ble way for businesses and electric utility companies in emerging markets to quickly establish a stable and independent electricity supply.”


Local presence is extremely important to understand the market 

To cater to the unique characteristics of this business, SMA founded the subsidiary SMA Sunbelt Energy GmbH and appointed Niang as the General Manag­er. “The Sunbelt countries are very different, both in terms of their political structures and their economic de­velopment status. You need to have an in-depth understanding of each individual market,” he explained.

»Only by harnessing the sun’s energy can we establish a sustainable, secure and cost-effective electricity supply throughout regions such as Africa, South America and Southeast Asia in the foresee­able future.« Souleymane Niang

In countries such as Thailand, the photovoltaic market is already so far advanced that Niang and his team are able to work with project developers in the area to implement PV-diesel hybrid systems. In other countries like Mali, these structures don’t even exist yet. In these countries, it is not enough to offer first-rate technological solutions and reliable service. “In these markets, we need to develop turnkey projects ourselves and take responsibility for their operational management together with local partners,” said Niang. “In this regard, it is extremely important to have direct access to the cus­tomer, be familiar with local business practices and build up a local network.” Therefore, he and his col­leagues analyze markets together and then decide in which countries they will gradually establish their own representative offices. These offices are manned by local employees who have excellent knowledge of their markets.


Transferring knowledge locally forms the basis for continued development

Initial projects are quickly being realized. For example, in May 2014, a large tea farm in East Kenya secured itself against the frequent power shortages afflicting the utility grid with a PV-diesel hybrid system equipped with SMA technology. At the same time, this is also helping operators to scale back their operating costs as use of the hybrid system considerably cuts down their need to use diesel fuel. In Bolivia, President Evo Morales is personally inaugurating the world’s largest PV-diesel hybrid system featuring battery-storage systems. SMA is supplying not only its Fuel Save Solution, which can be used to integrate a large pro-portion of photovoltaics into the diesel grid, but also four newly developed large-scale battery inverters that contain additional storage systems to make even more effective use of the solar energy. After commis­sioning, the system covers half the energy demand of the provincial capital of Cobija and neighboring ar-eas using clean and cost-effective solar energy.

The emerging countries of the Earth’s Sunbelt urgently need a stable and cost-effective electricity supply

Niang is proud of these flagship projects. But, in his eyes, providing technology and implementing complete systems is by no means enough: “To trigger sustaina-ble economic development, and thereby continue pre­paring the market for us, we need to develop specialist knowledge on photovoltaics directly in the area.” To this end, SMA is collaborating wherever possible with universities and other local educational institutions to teach not only customers, installers and project developers but also students of all ages about solar energy. Niang is convinced that: “Once the people of Africa and other sunny regions have truly grasped what they could achieve with photovoltaics, their energy revolu-tion will begin.”


This article was first published in the SMA annual report 2014.


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