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Renewable energy in Africa spurred on by economic factors

Encouraged by economic factors, renewable energy has seen considerable growth across the continent both at a large and much smaller scale

Renewable energy sources are making inroads into Africa's energy mix and may one day usurp the role of fossil fuels. But if they do, it will be primarily because there is a strong economic case for adopting them, rather than because of green energy policies. 

Wind farms are sprouting up in Ethiopia, Senegal, South Africa and across North Africa. Sizeable solar arrays are becoming more commonplace in countries from Burkina Faso to Kenya. There are also plans to develop massive solar farms in the Sahara to supply Europe and Africa, if financing can be mobilised. But there are limits at present to how much renewables can contribute in Africa, just as there are everywhere else.

Renewables, such as solar and wind power, require considerable capital investment in infrastructure - often more than fossil fuels - to make a major contribution to the energy mix, given the generally poor health of African power grids and their limited reach. Only a quarter of the population of sub-Saharan Africa has access to electricity, according to the World Bank. And even if there are power buyers, developers still need customers able to pay enough for the electricity to make a return - not a straightforward proposition across much of the world's poorest continent.

Given the constraints, it's perhaps little surprise that intermittent energy sources have made their biggest impact at the micro level. Solar power in particular has transformed lives in remote areas that have little chance of being connected to grid electricity.

The need to access cheap and plentiful electricity may trump adoption of low-carbon technologies

For example, UK-based charity SolarAid says it is now the largest distributor of solar lights in Africa, using a network of rural school head teachers to sell nearly 1 million lamps in Kenya, Malawi, Tanzania and Zambia since the project started in 2010. These cheap lights can be charged during the day and then used at night to enable children to study. They also help with domestic tasks, and eliminate the need to use kerosene lamps, which are both potentially dangerous and a source of carbon emissions.

Other companies in Africa have also successfully marketed solar-powered charging packs, which enable people in remote areas to recharge mobile phones - often their main business tool. Previously they had to make a trip to the nearest town with electricity to do so.   

Renewables are also becoming increasingly important at the next level up, in creating micro-grids, offering power across rural communities. These are most commonly based on micro- or mini-hydro schemes offering cheaper and mostly reliable power. However, not everyone has access to hydropower, so solar power, in particular, could become increasingly important in feeding micro-grids, especially if photovoltaic (PV) solar costs continue to fall and efficiency continues to improve, as has been the case in recent years.

However, renewables' intermittent nature means solar and wind power need to be used in conjunction with a more reliable power source, which in the context of many sub-Saharan countries is often a polluting and expensive diesel generator.    

Commercial considerations

The adoption of renewables in Africa is being driven mainly by their economic attractiveness rather than by a push to produce clean energy, however desirable that may be. Sub-Saharan Africa produced only 0.8 tonnes per capita of carbon dioxide  emissions in 2010, compared to a global average of 4.9 million tonnes per capita - even allowing for South Africa's heavy emissions from coal-fired power generation.

So for African countries seeking to kick-start their economies, the need to access cheap and plentiful electricity may trump adoption of low-carbon technologies, if they cost more to employ.

As is the case with small-scale generation, hydropower is the one renewable energy source that already delivers industrial quantities of electricity in many African nations. In East Africa, hydropower from the giant dams of Ethiopia, as well as those of Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania, are expected to feed an international power grid planned for the region. Another major contributor to this proposed grid is likely to be natural gas from fields off the east African coast, where reserve estimates continue to grow. Solar and wind are not excluded from the picture, forming part of a plan to add 5 gigawatts (GW) of electricity to Kenya's power capacity by 2017, though much of that is likely to come from coal and gas plants.   

Private sector

If renewables are to take a position in the energy mix in a fashion similar to developed countries, it will be in South Africa. The country's economy is large enough to enable the mobilisation of investment in renewables and the government is keen to diversify away from coal, which still provides around 90% of the country's power - nuclear, hydro power and gas-fired generation accounts for most of the rest.

The country's 2010 Integrated Resource Plan outlined a strategy to install some 19GW of new renewables capacity of the next 20-30 years, which would be more than 40% of all new generating capacity planned by then.

Of this, 9.1GW would come from wind power, 8.4GW from solar PV, 1.2GW from concentrated solar power, 125 megawatts (MW) from landfill gas and small hydro and 130 MW of biomass and biogas. The plans are focused on drawing in private sector investment through a Renewable Energy Independent Power Producers Procurement Programme (REIPPP), a multi-phase scheme whose various criteria include feed-in tariffs and ceiling tariffs to control costs, as well as socio-economic objectives.


Thus far, the REIPPP has proved effective in doing this, helped by a sharp decline in solar panel and wind turbine costs in the early years of the scheme, analysts say. The government is targeting installation of 3.75GW of the planned renewable capacity by 2016.

Cornelis van der Waal, an energy and power analyst at consultancy Frost & Sullivan in Johannesburg, says the most important legacy of South Africa's renewables push may prove to be how it has introduced private sector involvement into a power sector dominated by state-owned Eskom. "The majority of private investment in generation in South Africa is in renewables - and it's substantial. There is big money being spent. Big projects, international companies and local financiers," he says. 

This sentiment is also echoed by those involved in much smaller projects elsewhere on the continent. For example, in Rwanda, a public-private partnership scheme backed by German development Agency GIZ, has demonstrated that the private sector can be successfully involved in the development of small hydro schemes, according to those involved with it.

However, the day when renewables play a dominant role in African power generation remains some way off. Massive schemes are mooted, such as Desertec, which foresees producing power from massive solar farms in the Sahara to channel across northern Africa and into Europe, or the Grand Inga dam project on the River Congo in the Democratic Republic of Congo. If the Grand Inga dam is realised, it could produce up to 40GW, more than present electricity consumption in sub-Saharan Africa, excluding South Africa.

But these schemes remain largely on the drawing board and are likely to stay there unless political stability, international relations and the ability to mobilise investment across Africa improve. Until then, while hydropower will remain a major force, other forms of renewable energy will make a relatively limited, if important, contribution to Africa's energy supply. 

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