Copyright © Shutterstock; All Rights Reserved

Renewable Energies: Africa’s Untapped Leapfrogging Potential

Analysis of Africa's consumption of energy and the importance of developing renewable energy capacities for the continent.

Access to energy is one of the cornerstones for social and economic development and poverty alleviation. In the rural areas of some African countries, the share of people with access to modern energy services is as low as 1 percent. In order to reach these poor rural areas, sustainable concepts for energy services need to be developed. By now, many renewable energy technologies have reached competitive levels with conventional energy sources; they provide social stability through local empowerment and public participation, and protect the environment. Renewable energies can contribute to a large number of political objectives, such as poverty eradication, a sustainable use of resources, and the protection of both human health and the eco-system. This is particularly true for small to medium scale renewable energy systems that provide affordable energy to livelihoods currently defined by energy poverty.The shift from fossil fuels to renewable energies across Africa also has the potential of giving a boost to the achievement of all eight UN Millennium Development Goals (MDG).

According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), of the one billion Africans, almost two thirds do not have access to electricity. Only 4 percent of the world-wide electricity production is generated on the continent. On average, Africa consumes about 492 kWh per capita compared to the EU with over 3,000 kWh and the US which consumes 7,700 kW/h per capita. With a total installed capacity of 103 GW, the entire African continent has less power generationcapacity than, for instance, Germany with 120 GW. Of these 103 GW, 46 percent are located in South Africa and 34 percent in North Africa [JRC 2008].

Generally, almost all African countries are going through severe energy crises.  Despite fast growing population and economies that demand more energy, the increasing costs of fossil fuels lead to a situation where 80 percent of the African population relies primarily on traditional biomass, including fuel wood or charcoal,agricultural waste and animal dung to fulfil their daily energy needs.  Consequentially, the poor often pay higher unit costs for energy.  A large percentage of household income is spent on energy for electricity and cooking (diesel, kerosene, charcoal, etc.). At the same time, women invest a substantial amount of productive time in collection and transport of fuel wood. These fuels are burned in poorly ventilated or enclosed spaces leading to indoor air pollution. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 400,000 people, mainly women and children, in Africa die of indoor air pollution every year.

In terms of environmental concerns, through unsustainable use of biomass, Africa is losing more than four million hectares of forest every year – twice the world’s average deforestation rate, which makes the continent even more vulnerable to the effects of climate change.  Additionally, outdated and inefficient power infrastructure has dampened economic growth.  Because the overall energy scarcity has resulted in high costs for transport and industrial/commercial sector operations in most African countries, sustainable economic growth can only be achieved on the basis of renewable energy provision for industries.

In order to meet the energy needs of African people in the future, massive new investments are required in the next 30 to 40 years.  We will have to use this window of opportunity to transform the national energy systems from large-scale conventional power plants to decentralized renewable energy technologies. These offer great economic chances in an expansive renewable energy  market which is currently largely untapped , mainly due to limited policy interest and investment levels.

The rapid expansion of renewable energies across Africa will have a positive impact not only on the African people, their economical progress and the protection of its environment and ecosystems, but also on the world at large, leapfrogging the fossil fuel based development of the industrialized countries. Energy services have a significant role in facilitating both social and economic development – energy underpins economic activity, enhances productivity, and provides access to markets for trading purposes. In addition, it enables fulfillment of the basic human needs of nutrition, warmth, and lighting; and enables access to education, health, information and communication services.

Also, empirical evidence has shown that the diversification of electricity production in African countries such as Kenya or Mauritius, resulted in a stabilization of the power sector. Typical risks related to volatile prices for fossil fuels and droughts in the case of large hydro power capacity were reduced without high subsidies or increases in the electricity price.

Africa’s energy challenges require a radical scaling-up of access, which calls for an improved enabling environment, effective policy and regulatory frameworks, improved management capacities and financial services. Keeping in mind the unlimited renewable energy availability, there is a huge opportunity in directing investments into clean, efficient, renewable energy for the growth of a green economy in Africa.