When you think about an ideal place to produce renewable energy in theory, it doesn’t get much more perfect than Africa. The continent receives plentiful sunshine for solar, has strong equatorial and coastal winds for windmills, hydropower resources are abundant, and geothermal power is promising in some countries too. Meanwhile, an estimated 600 million peoplein Africa don’t have electricity, and very little progress has been made in recent years to turn the lights on.
However, lots of factors are holding African nations back from joining the fight against climate change, including poor governmental policies, flimsy commitments, inefficient power utilities, financing issues, and lack of awareness about renewable technologies.
Whether Africa can handle its increasing energy demands was the subject of a recent Energy Watch Group study, and in short, the answer is yes if renewables are utilized. The study points out that the cost of wind and solar energy is becoming cheaper than fossil fuels, and that this price shift will increase in the future. Battery storage is also getting cheaper, which means it will be easier and more affordable to store renewable energy for longer amounts of time. Therefore, closing down gas and coal plants doesn’t just help the environment; it can save African countries money too.
In Africa and many other parts of the world as well, a huge challenge for 100% renewable plans is transportation. Getting this sector decarbonized will take considerably longer than other power generation, starting with road traffic electrification and later replacing fossil fuels with liquid gases produced from wind and solar power. Currently, oil, coal, and gas make up approximately 81% of Africa’s total power generation.
South Africa has been leading the way in the continent’s renewable energy movement, but it hasn’t been able to make a firm commitment to renewables because their cost hasn’t come down enough and there isn’t an ideal energy storage solution being offered yet. In East Africa, Kenya and Ethiopia have renewable energy targets but are approaching their goals in very different ways. While Kenya is pursuing low-risk, off-grid solutions, Ethiopia is more interested in on-grid investments. Ethiopia’s greatest renewable energy potential is in geothermal energy from the Great Rift Valley, but its government puts the economy before social development, and the regulatory regime is sparse. Kenya is more welcoming to private investments and allows its power sector to be more influenced by market needs, not to mention Kenya’s more developed legislative and regulatory structure.
Meanwhile, Morocco is building a $9 billion thermosolar farm near Ouarzazate in the Sahara Desert that will be able to power more than a million homes and perhaps even serve as a gateway for larger progress in African renewables. To advance the renewable energy sector in sub-Saharan Africa, the U.K. announced £100 million for funding of 18 projects in Tanzania, Burundi, Nigeria, Kenya, and other areas. The European Union Projects has also backed projects to put all that Saharan sunshine to use to transport renewable energy from North Africa to Europe via cables under the Mediterranean Sea.
Yet it often feels like one step forward and two steps back with sustainable progress Africa, as new plans to develop coal power plants and use natural gas-powered turbines are continuously proposed in various countries. Stay tuned as we continue to follow renewable energy progress in this part of the world for what will hopefully be a cleaner, greener continent for the next generation of Africans.