How solar power on a campus can change an academic community

When 27-year-old Julian Egbe, a political science student at Cameroon’s University of Yaoundé I, does research on her computer, the electricity is generated by the solar panels on the campus.

Eight years ago, the Bolloré Africa Logistics industrial group, in partnership with the Cameroon government, began to build a photovoltaic solar panel park on the campus as part of its ‘Blue Solutions’ programme.

“Since the installation of solar energy on campus, I carry out my research and other academic activities without fear of hydro-electricity power outages,” Egbe said.

Like Egbe, staff members on campus agree that the availability of solar energy has provided relief for the university community that had been struggling for years to work uninterrupted due to regular hydro-power outages.

Being able to generate its own electricity also created options during the pandemic, said Professor Maurice Aurelien Sosso, rector of the University of Yaoundé I.

Thanks to more reliable and internally generated renewable energy, the university could conduct more online teaching when it was not possible during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic to have contact classes in 2020 and 2021.

“Thanks to our solar power supply to the campus and the students’ residential area, we were able to sustain about 65% of our teaching through online delivery,” Sosso said.

Solar park also enables campus transport

The solar park is also used to power the three so-called ‘Blue Buses’ offered by the Bolloré Group to transport students within the school premises.

According to Gossan Seka, the Blue Bus project supervisor, the energy from the sun during the day is used to recharge the buses’ lithium metal polymer batteries for eight hours in the evening after the shuttle service has ended. The three electric buses are intended to facilitate on-campus transportation for about 3,500 students each day.

The solar power project represents an overall investment of 1.4 billion CFA (US$4 million at today’s rates), according to the business partner.

Vincent Bolloré, CEO of the group, says the Blue Bus project “does not claim to have all the solutions to the university’s transportation problems, but it allows students and teachers to enjoy eco-friendly technology in Cameroon”.

Climate change and hydro power

Cameroon’s hydro-electric power supply has become increasingly erratic over the years and outages are commonplace because of the rationing of electricity by Eneo (Energy of Cameroon).

Eneo has blamed the outages on water supply deficits during the dry season, exacerbated by climate change, as well as old equipment and dilapidated transmission lines which often break down.

“Climate change, with prolonged droughts, is affecting our capacity to meet the high demand for energy,” says Eugène Ngueha, the central director of technical activities at Eneo.

The hydro-electricity power supply in Cameroon was privatised after the government implemented the Enhanced Structural Adjustment Facility (ESAF) economic reforms imposed by the International Monetary Fund in 1998.

Since then, the power supply in the country has become problematic, university authorities and students say.

“Before we had solar power on campus, students used to go for weeks without electricity and, sometimes, they were forced to relocate to a neighbourhood with power to do their assignments. The solar energy we have now has put an end to that,” said Agnes Ondoa, a former student at the University of Yaoundé 1.

Cameroon’s President Paul Biya has also come out in support of renewable energy as a backup to other sources.

“The government is making sure that all state universities get solar power as an alternative energy source, in line with the instructions of the head of state,” said Jacques Fame Ndongo, the minister of higher education.

Entrepreneurs for the solar power industry

Since 2013, higher education institutions have started to train students to develop entrepreneurial businesses using solar power and other renewable energy technologies with the aim of addressing electricity shortages and creating jobs.

This has enabled universities that have started to use solar power to tap into their own pool of trained technicians to manage their installations.

According to Sosso, the growth in the renewable energy sector in Central African nations has highlighted the need for human resources to plan, design, install, monitor and maintain energy systems as demand grows.

“The constant rise in energy costs, the problem of persistent (power) blackouts and, most importantly, an increasing awareness of climate change, have pushed the business of renewable and alternative energy use in Cameroon to grow tremendously in the past few years,” he said.

The ministry of higher education, according to Sosso, introduced a training programme, ‘Solar Technicians Made in Cameroon’ in 2013, and several universities have since started running related courses.

Many experts say the inclusive and technology-intensive industrialisation and structural change desired by countries in Sub-Saharan Africa to enhance socio-economic development and a quality research base cannot be achieved without sustainable energy sources, which are required for better research, industrial productivity and competitiveness.

Statistics from the World Bank show that, of Cameroon’s population of 24 million people, only about 61% had access to electricity in 2019 and, in rural areas, this figure dropped to just 21%.

According to Martine Akame Mesumbe, a director in the ministry of water and energy, renewable energy use in Cameroon today stands at less than 5% of the total, but the government aims to increase this to 25% by 2030.

About US$120 million in funding for this effort is coming from a Bank of China loan for renewable energy projects, Mesumbe said.

“We are glad that virtually all state universities are embracing solar energy as an alternative. We encourage private universities to follow suit,” he said.