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Powering Africa

By Dave Elliott

Over the last ten years or so there has been a concerted effort to support the use of renewable energy in less developed countries. The long term aim has been to reduce emissions from the use of fossil fuels, but shorter term aims include providing energy sources for the many who are currently off the power grid. Thus the UN’s Sustainable Development goals include providing ‘affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all’, with projects being supported across the developing world under the Sustainable Energy for All programme, and Africa being a major focus.

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. 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 sounds quite optimistic, both technologically and economically – and also politically. But the renewable resource is very large (for solar especially) and the technologies are getting cheaper fast. With 54 very unevenly developed countries on the huge continent, whether the political and institutional cohesion is there for a co-ordinated push is, however, less certain. So far there have been many small to medium scale projects mounted plus a few large-scale centralised projects – the most obvious being the huge 42 GW Grand Inga project in the Congo. Its prospects have ebbed and flowed as the political and economic climates have varied, but if it does get built it would be presented as a centrepiece for African energy development, with power being distributed long distances using new grid links.

Whether that is a sensible development model remains unclear. 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 solar PV locally, off grid, with panels put on individual homes, schools and the like, although helpful, is not enough to make more than a limited dent in the problem of providing full access to energy. At present 57% of Africa’s mostly rural population does not have access to electricity. Grids, including local mini grids, are also needed.

New cheaper power inputs are also needed – but they are on the way. A new assessment by the US Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) has found that wind and solar can be economically and environmentally competitive options in Africa and can contribute significantly to the rising demand, which could triple as African economies develop.

Ranjit Deshmukh, one of the lead researchers of the study, said that ‘wind and solar have historically been dismissed as too expensive and temporally variable, but one of our key findings is that there are plentiful wind and solar resources in Africa that are both low-impact and cost-effective’. He added, ‘another important finding is that with strategic siting of the renewable energy resource and with more energy trade and grid interconnections between countries, the total system cost can be lower than it would be if countries were to develop their resource in isolation without strategic siting’.

The Berkeley Lab study uses multiple assessment criteria, including locational factors, with opportunities for grid balancing via trade being seen as important: many countries in the south and east have wind and solar potential several times greater than their expected demand in 2030 and by ‘prioritizing wind and solar projects for regional energy trade, policymakers and financiers can increase their cost-competitiveness’.

So what’s actually happening on the ground? Well, some unexpected things. With 99 million inhabitants, Ethiopia is one of the poorest nations in the world, but its total renewable energy capacity jumped from 697 MW in 2008 to 4,188 MW in 2016, over 10% of Africa’s total generation capacity of 38 GW. South Africa had similarly jumped from 838 MW in 2008 to 4,064 MW in 2016. Egypt has stayed at just over 3 GW.

Edie, using data from IRENA, noted that Ethiopia ‘was among the most daring signatories of the Paris Agreement, committing to cut carbon emissions by 64% by 2030. It is already 100% powered by renewable energy, but the Government continues to position clean technology and green innovation as key economic drivers. It has already ploughed billions into hydropower megaprojects and is now gearing up to become the wind power capital of Africa, with its second Growth and Transformation Plan, a five-year strategy to reduce poverty and spur national development – pursuing an increase of wind energy output from 324 MW in 2015 to more than 17 GW by 2020’.  

Not everyone is happy with the cost of all this. Ethiopia has been one of the recipients of climate-related aid. It included funds for a wind project. But The Telegraph has challenged the use of this type of funding, which it puts at £2bn globally so far, with the UK providing £268m for the £630m Scaling Up Renewable Energy Project (SREP), which the newspaper said so far has only yielded 276 MWh. The Telegraph also noted that SREP had so far provided ‘improved energy access’ to just 7,395 people. The 2023 target was 4.9 million people, so that the project had only achieved 0.15% of its intended target.

SREP is part of the overall Climate Investment Fund programme run by the World Bank, with the Telegraph noting ‘almost one-third of the £6.75 billion total funding provided by the UK government’. Clearly the Telegraph report fed into the ongoing debate over whether the UK should be offering support on this scale.

There is, of course, a problem with assessing success on a short time scale with long term programmes, and not all the social and community enhancement outcomes are easily measurable, but given that large amounts of money have been allocated, and given also that the energy access problems do need effective solutions, it is important to try to take stock. Aid agencies and governments do try and some of the funding ends up on assessment of outcomes and effectiveness. Indeed, some say too much is spent on this at the expense of the actual projects. Claims like this are hard to assess, as are claims about general inefficiency, but some assessment can probably be usefully made in general strategic terms of the overall effectiveness of the approaches that have been adopted so far.

Most of the countries targeted are relatively poor and there can certainly be mismatches in expectations and conflicts with other development goals, with energy issues and renewables in particular not necessarily being high on local/national agendas. The likelihood also that donor countries will have their own commercial interests and may seek to build markets for equipment and services that they can supply also raises a range of political and economic issues: who are these programmes really for? What are the costs and risks of technology transfer? Can local technology and skill bases be created?

I’m working on a Palgrave Pivot book on all this with my Open University colleague Terence Cook, who has been involved with the SE4A programme. There is certainly a way to go with renewables in Africa. Hydro, at 32.6 GW in all in 2016, still dominates, supplying nearly all the power in several countries, but wind and solar are building up. By 2016, there was 3.7 GW of wind, with South Africa in the lead at 1.5 GW, followed by Egypt and Morocco at just over 700 MW each. Solar is catching up, at 2.9 GW in 2016. Meanwhile the purveyors of nuclear technology are also much in evidence, although so far South Africa is the only country that has built nuclear plants – 1.8GW in all.

Oxfam has produced two excellent reports on how it sees the way ahead in Africa: one on the basics, and one on policy.

And Germany’s new Marshall Plan for Africa stresses partnerships in local enterprise rather than just aid.

Also see Ockwell and Byrne’s excellent new book ‘Sustainable Energy for All: Innovation, Technology and Pro-Poor Green Transformations’, Routledge. It develops a socio-technical approach to African pathway change, with a case study focus on PV in Kenya.

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