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Green energy for Africa

By Dave Elliott

The International Renewable Energy Agency says that Africa has the potential and the ability to utilise its renewable resources to fuel the majority of its future growth with renewable energy. It adds ‘doing so would be economically competitive with other solutions, would unlock economies of scale, and would offer substantial benefits in terms of equitable development, local value creation, energy security, and environmental sustainability’.

That seems a bold claim both technologically and economically, and also politically. But the renewable resource is very large (for solar especially) and the technologies are getting cheaper fast. However, with 54 very unevenly developed countries on the huge continent, whether the political and institutional cohesion is there for a co-ordinate push is  less certain.So far there have been many small- to medium-scale projects mounted by African countries or (mostly) Western companies, plus a few large-scale centralised projects – the most obvious being the huge 40GW Grand Inga project on the Congo. It’s prospects have ebbed and flowed as the political and economic climate have varied, but if it does get built it would be presented as a centre piece for African energy development, with power being distributed long distances using new grid links.

Whether that is a sensible development  model remains unclear. Africa is huge and the distances very large. Even extensive new grid networks would only reach a few people outside the major urban/industrial centres. The vast majority will probably never be able to have grid power, or at least not for some time. Local off-grid projects may make much more sense.

However, simply deploying PV locally, off grid, with panels put on individual homes, schools and the like, although helpful, is not enough to make more than a small dent on the problem of providing full access to energy. At present 57% of Africa population does not have access to electricity.  There are limits to what can be achieved by ad hoc individual electrification programmes. Independent systems need to be linked via local mini grids to help provide more stability and to help attain economies of scale. Installing a large number of units in a community can reduce the cost per unit of the project and the network as a whole may be able to balance variations in demand and supply to some degree and maybe have some storage facilities. In time (see my previous post) it may also be possible to link up mini grids into a smart regional grid and then link that up further to a national and even pan-African grid system. Then balancing across different climate zones, north and south, east and west, becomes possible. So on this model, a bottom up programame gradually, over time, meets up with the existing top down large hydro/supergird network programme.

In 2012, African Heads of State endorsed the Programme for Infrastructure Development for Africa (PIDA) including 15 priority energy projects amounting to a total budget of USD 40.5 billion, to be implemented between 2012 and 2020.

As IRENA note, the project portfolio includes nine hydroelectricity generation projects, four transmission corridors, and two pipelines, one for oil and the other for gas. The four corridors include:
• the North-South transmission link, from Egypt to South Africa, with branches mostly into East Africa;
• the Central corridor, from Angola to South Africa, with branch lines into central and western Africa;
• a North African transmission link from Egypt to Morocco, with links via Libya, Tunisia and Algeria; and
• the West African Power Transmission Corridor, linking Ghana to Senegal, with branches.

This will all take time and money. The UN-backed Sustainable Energy for All programme aims to ensure universal access to modern energy ser­vices, double the global rate of improvement in energy efficiency and double the share of renewable energy in the glob­al energy mix by 2030. The EU has provided €40m to help kick off the programme and along with funding from the World Bank and other agencies, there should be sufficient resources to make a start. But what should the focus be? On small local off-grid projects or on big electricity projects? Or grid networks, large and small? More generally should the emphasis be on electricity (for domestic/office use, including, crucially, air conditioning) or heat and power production, and improved energy efficiency, for industry. And what about transport – the hard one. Can Africa’s fleet of diesel tucks and vans really be run on biofuels?

The energy resource is there for all of this. As IRENA notes, Africa’s renewable energy power potential is substantially larger than the current and projected power consumption of the continent. And it’s not just about electricity. Local geothermal, solar thermal and bio­energy resources have an important role to play in cover­ing future heat demand – for example, biomass-fired CHP, geothermal CHP and solar thermal plants could supply heat for key industrial processes. And the (careful!) use of biofuels/biogas and renewable energy-based electrification of urban public transport can contribute significantly to transport needs. But where to start? And exactly how?

There is always the risk of equipment being parachuted in by western developers, making  use of grants to create markets they can then exploit, but creating little or no local capacity to develop, run and maintain independent projects.  The bottom-up approach could avoid this by supporting local energy co-ops with access to micro finance, perhaps facilitated by local entrepreneurs who help projects to grow in return for a percentage of the profits. They will have to import the equipment initially, but in time it may be possible for these groups to expand and develop sufficiently to act as the nucleus for local manufacturing and technical back up enterprises. It is vital that local technical capacity is developed – to build the local economy, creating local jobs.

Bottom-up approaches like this may come into conflict with national programmes and policies. Many African countries have now set targets for renewable energy development, but the emphasis in each varies and sometimes changes. For example, Kenya has large wind, solar, biomass and geothermal resources, but recently decided to prioritize mostly fossil sources to help cut power prices in the short term. There are also major difference in starting points. The North African states mostly differ dramatically from those in the sub Sahara, with huge potential desert solar potential.  South Africa is vastly more developed than most of the other sub-Saharan countries, but is heavily reliant on coal, whereas some other less developed countries, such as Angola, D R Congo, Mozambique and Zambia, are almost 100% reliant on hydro. No one top-down plan can fit all, or be accepted by all. Developing a sustainable approach continent-wide is going to be an interesting political as well as technological challenge.

The situation is of course very different from that in the EU. There is a temptation to copy ideas from the EU, but maybe it could be that Africa and other developing regions, can, will and should develop their own approaches. Certainly, it would be tragic to repeat the mistakes made elsewhere, and when it comes to overall strategy, the EU doesn’t seem to be doing too well at the moment, as I will be reporting in my next post.

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