Renewable energy holds many hopes for Africa: the prospect of sustainable growth, improved living conditions for people, access to energy for all, the fight against climate change. While the challenges in achieving this are daunting, they represent real potential for economic and social growth.
It is no secret that Africa has enormous potential for renewable energy. It has a high rate of sunlight, a high hydroelectric potential, strong winds that would allow the deployment of wind energy, and considerable resources for biomass (waste recovery).
Yet sub-Saharan African countries have an enormous energy deficit. In terms of access to electricity, electricity generation capacity is 90GW for all of Sub-Saharan Africa. That is less than the installed capacity of South Korea, which has a population 5% that of Sub-Saharan Africa. This is a huge drag on economic activity. Electricity is also unreliable: it is often intermittent and existing infrastructure is aging. Hence the use of oil-fired generators, making electricity very expensive. On the population side: 2 out of 3 Africans do not have access to electricity with rural areas more heavily affected than cities. To meet their electricity needs, these populations use kerosene lamps which pose serious safety problems, pollution and again very high costs. Lack of access to clean energy is a major source of degraded living standards: the use of wood and coal for cooking causes nearly 600,000 deaths per year due to pollution.
Renewable energy is an opportunity for Africa. They would enable less polluting development, create jobs, develop local skills, preserve natural resources, reduce poverty… Renewable energies have the particularity of being able to be deployed via decentralized infrastructure of varying sizes (mini-grids or power stations of varying sizes). They are easier to manage and maintain, and require less investment than traditional power grids. They would make energy technically accessible to all and affordable to even the lowest income groups. There is no doubt that local entrepreneurs have a major role to play in providing access to these clean energies and technologies. But to succeed, they will need financing from, among others, international donors. They will also have to be supported by the states and, of course, collaboration will have to be a factor of success: enabling these entrepreneurs to develop and work alongside larger African or foreign companies.
The development of renewable energy in Africa is at the center of attention. States, international institutions, and the private sector all have plans to promote renewable energy on the continent. The African Development Bank has announced its “New Deal for Energy in Africa”, its action plan to eradicate energy poverty in Africa by 2025. Different initiatives from companies or personalities have also emerged. Like the lighting Africa program carried by the singer Akon or Schneider Electric who created a fund for access to energy in Africa. The issue of renewable energies and especially its financing will be at the heart of the COP21 debates.
However, it is necessary to remain realistic because many projects announced never came into being. This is the case of Desert, which planned to develop giant solar installations in the Sahara and the Middle East to power Europe. This may be evidence that pharaonic projects are too complex to implement and ultimately benefit very few people.
Many African countries have launched programs to promote the development of clean energy in their countries. Some of them have a rather ambiguous position because they continue to invest in fossil fuels or nuclear energy in parallel. Nigeria, for example, has a new regulatory framework to facilitate the purchase of electricity from renewable energy sources. Ironically, Iran has announced the construction of nuclear power plants to boost its electricity supply. Senegal, for its part, has a policy for the development of renewable energies and at the same time has chosen to build new coal-fired power plants to meet the growing demand for electricity. Clearly, African states have an important role to play in making renewable energy a driver of development in Africa.
International Renewable Energy Agency, IRENA
ENERGY, POPULATION, AND PLANET, Africa Progress Report 2015, Africa Panel Progress
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