Unlocking Africa’s Renewable Energy Potential


By Mark Hankins, Mathias Gustavsson and Federico Hinrichs 
02 October 2012 

With the right stimuli, delivered through a multi-pronged strategy, renewables will take off in sub-Saharan Africa.

Like blind men describing an elephant, African pundits talk about renewables in terms of individual perceptions, needs and inclinations, and often in ways that put the overall issue completely out of perspective.
For example, academics tell us about ample solar, wind, hydro and biomass resources that, properly harnessed, could change the energy picture in Africa. Environmentalists talk about deforestation, unsustainable use of charcoal in cities and the risks associated with biofuel production. Social entrepreneurs speak of replacing kerosene with pico-solar systems. Carbon traders highlight opportunities for wind parks on growing power grids. Community activists want programmes to widen energy access with hydro, solar, wind and co-generation electricity. Climate changers talk mitigation and adaptation strategies and politicians make sweeping statements about new investment programmes.

Though the pundits are each ‘right’ in their particular prescriptions, in the noise of the discussions we end up blind to the ‘big picture’. Yes, given the proper stimuli, renewables can and will take off in Sub-Saharan Africa. Appetite and resources are clearly there.

Unfortunately, renewables are not making fast enough progress in Africa. Electricity sectors still rely primarily on petroleum, coal and large hydro. Rural areas have poor electricity access and remain overly reliant on biomass sourced from dwindling forests. Policies are murky, technical capacity is low and, where there is cash, finance terms are absurd. While power companies in Africa are starved for electricity and struggling to supply growing demand, in most countries renewables are not filling the gap fast enough and renewable energy companies are frustrated.

As is still the case in many developed countries, renewables in Africa must overcome significant financial, political and social barriers. Primary among these are a low level of understanding among all stakeholders, inertia and lack of lack of transparency from governments and lack of investment finance across the board. Despite hundreds of small ‘projects’ by committed groups, overall policy and industry infrastructure remains incomplete in most countries.

When talking of renewables, there are two key story lines: firstly, use of renewables to build power infrastructure and secondly, use of renewables to increase access to modern energy services. Renewable sector growth depends on both of these. In fact, development of renewable energy infrastructure and increased access are intertwined and cannot be seen in isolation. Renewable energy infrastructure usually predicates the use of renewables to increase access and attempted use of renewables to increase rural energy access without investment in renewable energy infrastructure has, in many places, lead to much lower impacts.

The prerequisite ‘components’ of renewable energy growth described below need to be coordinated into long-term multi-sectoral strategies. Like pieces of a puzzle, the components must be carefully fit together and staged – sometimes sequentially and sometimes as parallel activities. Each country will have a different plan drawing upon elements of these components.

Understanding the Situation and How We Got Here

Knowing where we are, and how we got here, provides us with enough perspective to plan for a renewable future. Today, Africa trails the developed world and most of southeast Asia in renewable developments. This has much to do with government policy, donor decisions made 20 years ago and a lack of attention by renewable companies themselves to Africa. It also has to do with a lack of civil society’s attention to the issue.

First, energy sectors in many countries are focused on surviving today’s power crises. Even though it may be easy to show on paper that an investment in wind or solar PV is lower cost in the long term, African energy sectors must solve problems that require immediate solutions with limited investment capacity. It is easy to see why diesel gen-sets have gained such a huge share of peak power supply all over the continent – they are cheap, flexible, manageable and immediately available. Few governments have the long-term budget (or vision) to invest in renewable solutions even if they are lower cost.

Secondly, donor-led investments in off-grid renewables are part of the market development problem. Post-Rio 1992, the Global Environment Facility (GEF) and donors largely targeted renewables in Africa for off-grid rural energy access programmes, believing that off-grid investments would be best for stimulating a scale-up of renewable energy in Africa. However, while Africa was looking off-grid, much of the rest of the world (Germany, California, Japan and lately China) were building up policies to support grid-connected renewable markets. Thus while ‘global’ renewable players focused on rapidly growing grid-connected developed-country markets, Africa focused on building off-grid renewable programmes that often foundered because they were isolated, small-scale and unattractive to international players. For example, while global solar PV installations went from 95% off-grid to 95% on-grid between 1995 and 2011, Africa spent most of its PV planning resources on expensive off-grid programs and almost nothing on plans for on-grid PV.

Thirdly, unlike much of the rest of the world, African energy sectors are haunted by centralised coal, petroleum and large hydro. Although there is quite a bit of lip service paid to renewables, actual investments by African power sectors in biomass, solar, wind, and small hydro have been much less than investments in non-renewable solutions over the past two years. Petroleum is big money in Africa and renewables have not been able to stimulate appetites of leaders in the same way that oil has. Coal and petroleum players are ‘old hands’ in Africa, but renewable companies are only beginning to learn how to operate on the continent.

Once we know where we are, we can continue the hard work of making renewables a central part of every energy discussion – and every Ministry programme.

Getting Renewables into the Mainstream

Renewables must be ‘mainstreamed’ in Africa. For this to occur, they need to move away from the periphery and be seen, and supported, as integral, indispensible components of every country’s energy sector. As well, there is a need to coordinate plans to build renewable infrastructure, increase access and address traditional biomass sectors. It is all about the message.

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