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Green energy in Africa

by Dave Elliott

Africa has amongst the world’s best renewable energy potential globally, given its climate, with solar an obvious choice, hydro already being well established and wind beginning to be taken up. Biomass and, in some areas, geothermal, are also very significant options. However, hydro apart, the continent only just started to exploit these resources.

Hydro supplies nearly all the power in Angola, Burundi, D R Congo, Lesotho, Mozambique, and Zambia, and makes smaller contributions elsewhere, but the ‘new’ renewables, like wind and solar, are still relatively marginal.   Nevertheless, solar is now being taken up strongly in North Africa, Concentrating Solar Power (CSP) especially. Egypt has a 150 MW hybrid CSP/gas plant running just outside of Cairo. Its National Plan for 2018-22 has 2,550 MW of CSP. Morocco has a 160 MW hybrid solar/gas fired unit, and Algeria has a 25 MW unit, backed by a 130 MW gas-fired plant. Tunisia’s ‘TuNur’ CSP project should ultimately have 2 GW capacity. But solar PV (and CPV – concentrating PV) is also moving ahead and so is wind power, in Egypt especially.

Looking to the future, although Egypt has nuclear aspirations, as have some other North African states, the turmoil of the so-called Arab Awakening and subsequent reversals has put that further back on the agenda, whereas renewables have moved up centre stage. Egypt aims to get 20% of its electricity from renewables by 2020. Algeria is aiming for 22 GW of renewable capacity by 2030, and Morocco aims to get 40% of its electricity from renewables by 2020. Overall, renewables are beginning to take off in North Africa and it’s claimed that total installed capacity could double to 120 GW by 2020:

By contrast, the story in sub-Saharan Africa is more mixed. South Africa gets around 6% of its electricity from nuclear, and wants to expand its capacity, although the recession led it to abandon the programme for the moment. Instead, renewables are being promoted, with 3.75 GW planned by 2016, mainly from biomass, wind, solar and small hydro. But much more is seen as possible. An Earthlife analysis put the potential for on-land wind at 50 GW, the wave potential at 10 GW, and the solar potential being enough in theory to supply the needs of the whole country. See

In the rest of sub-Saharan Africa, progress is even more mixed. In Kenya, the government seems keen to focus very heavily on nuclear, but is also backing renewables. It has large wind, solar and biomass resources, and is planning a 100 MW wave plant. It already has over 200 MW of geothermal capacity, and aims to meet 50% of its electricity needs with geothermal by 2018. Nigeria’s 2006 Renewable Energy Master plan has renewables supplying 13% of electricity in the short term, and 36% long term. Niger aims to get 10% of its primary energy from renewables by 2020 and Senegal 15% by 2025. See REN 21 Global Status report,

In terms of technology, large hydro is dominant in many African countries (near 100% in some), but in addition to wind, micro-hydro is seen as attractive in some locations, while village-level PV projects have spread widely, for example in Uganda, Tanzania, Chad, Rwanda, Angola, Gambia and the Congo. Ghana has introduced a Feed-In Tariff for PV, and its 155 MW PV plant, opened in 2012, is the largest so far in Africa.

Renewable energy feed-in tariffs (REFiTs) are clearly helping roll-out renewable technology across Africa, as they have in the EU, but a recent NGO report argued that, to meet Africa’s needs at the speed and scale required without burdening the energy poor, costs must be distributed across the population fairly, based on usage and ability to pay, while the international community can provide extra financial support, such as through  ‘top-up’ payments via a Global REFiT Fund, in line with obligations under the UNFCCC/Kyoto protocol for repayment of climate debts. See ‘Powering Africa through Feed In Tariffs’, Friends of the Earth UK,

There is certainly no shortage of aid agency projects and programmes, most notably under the UN ‘Sustainable Energy for All’ initiative, which is backed by major support projects in Africa aided by the EU. Many charities and lobby groups also have projects and programmes, see for example the UK’s Green Alliance:

Nevertheless there are many problems to overcome, few of them technical. Institutional and political conflicts have bedevilled economic and social progress, as has the sheer size and social complexity of the continent.

As I noted in an earlier post, there are plans for major cross-Africa power grids, but those will only link up major industrial/urban centres: there’s also a need for off-grid and local mini grid systems.   The mini-grid issue is being pushed hard by the Global Leap (Lighting and Energy Access Partnership) programme, which has recently produced a useful new infographic:  And the access issue is also central to the excellent work done by UK-based Practical Action. See their new report with IDS and TERI:

While local level projects are probably the most relevant for the moment, so far most new investment in energy systems in Africa seems to have been focused on large capital projects of uncertain social and environmental impact, the most familiar perhaps (leaving aside oil!) being the giant hydro project planned for the Congo river. And of course the continued push, often led by foreign vendors, for nuclear power. In addition to Kenya, at various points Ghana, Namibia, Nigeria, Senegal and Tanzania have all expressed an interest.                                                

Does Africa really need nuclear? With many people off the grid, very capital-intense centralised nuclear, supplied by foreign vendors, hardly seems to be the answer. Africa has abundant solar and other renewable sources, many of which can be developed effectively on a local decentralised basis. Their use would seem to offer an economically effective, socially equitable and environmentally sound way to meet local energy needs, cut emissions and aid social and economic development. For a radical critique of the conventional approach see McDonald, D (ed) (2008) ‘Electric capitalism: recolonization in Africa on the power grid’

So what’s the bottom line? As has often been pointed out, while renewables (large hydro apart) are still relatively marginal in Africa, and there are huge problems, there are prospects for unlocking what is a huge resource.

While it is very hard to make generalisations across such a huge continent, the admittedly ambitious 2012 Greenpeace Energy [R]evolution scenario for Africa had, by 2050, 92% of the electricity coming from renewable energy sources. ‘New’ renewables contributed 71% of electricity generation, with wind at 200 GW, CSP 161 GW and PV 155 GW. Hydro was at 50 GW.

That is a long way from where we are now, but the International Renewable Energy Agency is very positive about the future. It 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’. IRENA (2013) ‘Africa’s Renewable Future: The Path to Sustainable Growth’, International Renewable Energy Agency, Abu Dhabi,

With IRENA providing useful inputs and the Sustainable Energy for All programme underway, aided by the EU’s Technical Assistance Facility, progress is being made and certainly as a result of these and other initiatives, there are many interesting and valuable projects across Africa. See the special Jan 2015 issue of Energy Research and Social Science, ‘Renewable Energy in Sub-Saharan Africa’:

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