Energy self-sufficiency for Africa

Given the prohibitive cost of delivering a continent-wide grid can Africa go its own way with stand-alone renewable energy and leapfrog grid-based generation?

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At a Europe-Africa Summit in Gaborone 22 years ago, I proposed and got accepted a motion allocating part of Europe’s mega aid and development budget to fund a massive Africa renewable energy programme in partnership with private companies.

I was Britain’s minister for Africa at the time, and argued that Europe needed to make this investment, both to combat climate change and because much of Europe’s prosperity was rooted in historic exploitation of Africa and many European companies continue to reap large profits on the continent, not least from fossil fuels.

The Africa-European Union Energy Partnership (AEEP) followed, but it has yet to make real progress towards making the continent a world leader in renewable energy with its vast natural resources.

Although acknowledging the need to make that transition, many African states are simultaneously developing fossil fuel reserves.

Kenya for instance has both been building the biggest wind farm in Africa near Lake Turkana and developing oil fields there. Mozambique and Tanzania are developing huge offshore gas reserves.

Nigeria and Angola are each processing hundreds of thousands of barrels of oil per day. European fossil fuel companies are exploiting Africa’s huge reserves, violating Europe’s own climate commitments.  South Africa for instance has recently increased coal exports to Europe to replace Russian gas following President Putin’s barbaric invasion of Ukraine.

After the UN’s Cop26 climate meeting concluded last November, Mary Robinson, chair of The Elders and a former president of Ireland, remarked on a “historically shameful dereliction of duty” from world leaders. But at least the UK, US, Germany, France and the EU committed to provide $8.5bn to South Africa for its transition to renewable energy in a way that protected coal miners and their communities. Potentially a game-changer in how countries could wean their economies off fossil fuels, while protecting jobs and livelihoods. 

However, she pointed out in June that “as is so often the case with high-profile financial commitments made in the media spotlight of global summits…. the promised billions have yet to materialise.”

No wonder critics complain that fine words on climate change ring rather hollow.

Can Africa leapfrog on energy?

Africa has an abundance of solar, wind and tidal stream, as well as other huge potential for hybrid generation and embedded generation; wave; hydro; wind; biomass and geothermal.

Remarkably, more energy falls from the sun on the planet’s deserts in six hours than the world consumes in a year, and yet the Sahara Desert, virtually uninhabited, has few solar farms, maybe because there is no ready access to the grid; but hopefully, as battery storage develops, the number of solar farms in the Sahara will multiply.

The failure to harness Africa’s huge green energy resource is shocking. Only 11% of the continent’s potential hydro-electricity is being used; in wind just 7% and in geothermal energy just 6% is being harnessed. Even with Africa’s abundance of sun, a measly 1% of estimated potential solar generation capacity is being delivered.

Yet the 20 countries with the lowest electricity access on the planet are in sub-Saharan Africa. Overall, 51.6% of the population of sub-Saharan Africa, approximately 586m people, have no access to electricity.

Given the prohibitive cost of delivering a continent-wide grid with universal access, surely Africa can go its own way with stand-alone renewable energy and leapfrog grid-based generation? It has done this through mobile telephony and mobile cash transfers.

Six years ago, the late Archbishop Desmond Tutu called for an anti-apartheid-style boycott and disinvestment campaign against the fossil fuel industry for driving global warming.

“We live in a world dominated by greed. We have allowed the interests of capital to outweigh the interests of human beings and our Earth. It is clear [the companies] are not simply going to give up; they stand to make too much money,” he wrote.

As on so many things, he was a visionary prophet.

This article originally appeared in IC Intelligence Insight 08.

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