Ethiopia is known by some as "the land of 13 months of sunshine," a reference both to its climate and to its unique calendar of 12 months of 30 days and an additional month of five or six.
But the Ethiopian government's ambitious plans to expand renewable energy production seem to disregard all those months of sunny weather, focusing instead on wind energy and hydroelectric power.
The country's ambitious five-year Growth and Transformation Plan (GTP), which began in 2010, aims to increase the power generating capacity at least fourfold from the current level of 2,179 megawatts (MW) of electricity.
However, solar power is expected to contribute a mere 30 MW to the goal.
No one disputes the need for expanded electricity access in Ethiopia. Although almost half the country's area is in principle covered by the national electric grid, 80 percent of the country's 85 million population live in rural areas, and only a tiny minority of these inhabitants - some reports suggest as low as about 2 percent - are thought to have access to electricity.
Commonly cited reasons for the low levels of are the scattered locations of rural populations and inadequate infrastructure to connect villages to power lines.
Miskir Negash, head of corporate relations at the Ethiopian Electric Power Corporation, the state monopoly electricity provider, said the relative expense of solar energy compared to wind energy or hydro, especially for big projects, relegates its usefulness to smaller-scale projects.
Nonetheless, the Growth and Transformation Plan does target another relatively costly power source, geothermal energy, to contribute 70 MW of power to the grid, more than twice the power targeted from solar energy.
A recent survey by the Chinese firm Hydrochina Corporation estimated Ethiopia's solar power potential to be around 2 trillion MW hours, with the northern part of the country having the greatest potential.
One organization trying to fill the gap in the provision of solar energy to the rural population is the Solar Energy Foundation. The German-founded international nongovernmental organisation works to provide electrification to rural areas using solar technology and lighting.
Its first project started six years ago in Amhara regional state in Rhema, a village not linked to the electric grid, where the foundation supplied a solar panel to each of the 2,100 households. Rhema is now the largest village in Ethiopia with solar lighting.
The foundation's revolving fund scheme has enabled 20,000 solar lighting systems of up to 60 watts to be distributed to 70 villages in four regional states: Oromia, Amhara, Tigray and Southern Nations and Nationalities Peoples. The foundation has also established a training programme for solar technicians.
Gebaynesh Nadewe, a housewife and mother of four who lives in Rhema, said that she uses her solar system to illuminate her grass-thatched house and to charge her mobile phone. Other residents of the village use theirs to charge solar televisions and radios, as well as water pumps for agricultural activities.
Samson Tsegaye, country director of the Solar Energy Foundation, said the foundation's plan is to expand the availability of solar technology for rural households, and also to help make it scalable to bigger areas.
Tsegaye pointed out that solar energy can be useful on a small scale, making it especially well suited to rural areas rather than urban ones, where individual usage of electricity tends to be greater. According to Tsegaye, rural households can benefit from solar installations with a capacity as low as one or two watts.
Tsegaye admitted, however, that financing solar projects is relatively expensive, especially to generate the megawatts of power required for use at a national rather than just local level.
HOW TO BOOST SOLAR
"One way the government can encourage the use of solar energy is through a clear policy on the implementation of imports of solar panels and other related products," Tsegaye said. He pointed out that finished solar goods imported from countries like China are free from import duties, but components, which can be assembled to make solar products in Ethiopia, are not.
The German government-affiliated technical organization GIZ also has already installed more than 100 solar-powered health centres in Ethiopia in areas without grid access, with a total capacity of more than 200 KW.
Gerd-Hening Vogel, director of GIZ's Energy Coordination Office, said the cost of solar power can be mitigated by its efficiency and reliability. Solar is also clearly more financially competitive than the diesel generators and kerosene lamps commonly used in times of power outages, he said.
"Solar power is an infinite resource and available everywhere the sun shines," he said.
E.G. Woldegebriel is a journalist based in Addis Ababa with an interest in environmental issues.