Energy-Senegal:Theft Casts a Shadow Over Solar Programmes

Monday, January 30, 2006

At a time when concerns about global warming and the need for renewable energy sources are grabbing headlines the world over, it seems particularly regrettable that communities would be afflicted by the theft of solar panels.

Yet, this is precisely what is happening in rural areas of Senegal, in West Africa.

“Just as we’re trying to improve life for rural populations in the interior of the country, evil-minded individuals are attempting to undermine the substantial physical and financial investments made (there) to put in place services for the provision of potable water, electricity and telecommunications,” Andr? Faye, head of the Renewable Energies Project at the Senegalese Agency for Rural Electrification (Agence s?n?galaise d’?lectrification rurale, ASER), told IPS.

The main aim of ASER is to ensure that 60 percent of districts in large rural areas have electricity within the next two decades. There has been a lag in providing these regions with power primarily because people living there are widely dispersed. Increases in energy prices that have occurred at various times are also amongst the factors which have delayed rural electricity provision.

To date, ASER has installed 10,000 solar systems in 300 villages — and plans to set up nine central solar plants on islands in the Saloum Delta, along the Atlantic coast.

However, a 2005 study indicated that up to 15 percent of solar panels installed in Senegal had been stolen. The study was released during a workshop held last month in the capital, Dakar, to discuss improving national and sub-regional strategies to fight solar panel theft. It was carried out by the Regional Solar Programme and the National Hydraulic Administration.

In addition to ASER, solar panel theft has also affected the National Telecommunications Company (Soci?t? nationale des telecommunications, SONATEL) and other government-run operations. During the past three years, more than 200 of the cells that make up solar panels installed by SONATEL have been stolen.

According to the 2005 study, panels are sometimes stolen and sold by the engineers and technicians who installed them. In another instance, a Mauritanian national stole panels in Senegal for resale in his own country. No arrests have been made yet, however.

Solar panel thieves have targeted maternity hospitals, places of worship and schools in several villages across the interior of the country.

“Imagine the disappointment of those living in an isolated village that had long been in darkness, and then found itself without the solar panel that supplied energy to its maternity clinic and bore hole,” said Faye.

While the 12 cells that make up a solar panel cost some 500 dollars each, thieves sell them for about 200 dollars in Senegal, or in neighbouring countries.

“Before going ahead with investments in equipment, it is essential to secure solar installations by developing national and sub-regional strategies with neighbouring countries with a view to curbing this trend,” says Oumar Top, secretary-general in the agriculture and hydraulics ministry.

Top has also proposed that anti-theft devices for solar panels such as those recommended by SONATEL be used more widely — particularly screw-in devices.

According to Ousseynou Diop, head of SONATEL security, the organisation was able to reduce considerably the theft of solar panels that it had installed by laying concrete on solar panel bases at more than 600 installation sites.

But, the arguments put forward by Diop and Top haven’t convinced everyone.

Faye maintains that screw-in devices have not been effective against solar panel thieves. Baye Ndiack Sall, coordinator of the National Hydraulic Administration, agrees — saying the organisation has found the bolts inadequate.

Raising awareness amongst local administrative authorities, rural communities and their leaders may provide the best hope of dealing with this situation, as it could encourage them to be more vigilant towards solar installations that were put in place for their benefit.

Senegal began its solar programmes after the 1973 oil crisis, which saw the country’s fuel bill rise sharply.

The 1973 shock was prompted by the Yom Kippur war, which pitted Israel against Egypt and Syria. During this conflict, the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries placed an embargo on oil supplies to states viewed as taking Israel’s side in the conflict — notably the United States.

The result was that global oil prices increased four-fold, which in turn led to widespread recession.

Source: Inter Press Service (Johannesburg), Abdou Faye (link opens in a new window)