NEWS Can Wind and Solar Fuel Africa’s Future?

Novem­ber 2, 2016 — Nature

With prices for renew­ables drop­ping, many coun­tries in Africa might leap past dirty forms of ener­gy towards a clean­er future

At the thresh­old of the Sahara Desert near Ouarza­zate, Moroc­co, some 500,000 par­a­bol­ic mir­rors run in neat rows across a val­ley, mov­ing slow­ly in uni­son as the Sun sweeps over­head. This US$660-million solar-ener­gy facil­i­ty opened in Feb­ru­ary and will soon have com­pa­ny. Moroc­co has com­mit­ted to gen­er­at­ing 42% of its elec­tric­i­ty from renew­able sources by 2020.

Across Africa, sev­er­al nations are mov­ing aggres­sive­ly to devel­op their solar and wind capac­i­ty. The momen­tum has some experts won­der­ing whether large parts of the con­ti­nent can vault into a clean future, bypass­ing some of the envi­ron­men­tal­ly destruc­tive prac­tices that have plagued the Unit­ed States, Europe and Chi­na, among oth­er places.

African nations do not have to lock into devel­op­ing high-car­bon old tech­nolo­gies,” wrote Kofi Annan, for­mer sec­re­tary-gen­er­al of the Unit­ed Nations, in a report last year. “We can expand our pow­er gen­er­a­tion and achieve uni­ver­sal access to ener­gy by leapfrog­ging into new tech­nolo­gies that are trans­form­ing ener­gy sys­tems across the world.”

That’s an intox­i­cat­ing mes­sage, not just for Africans but for the entire world, because elec­tric­i­ty demand on the con­ti­nent is explod­ing. Africa’s pop­u­la­tion is boom­ing faster than any­where in the world: it is expect­ed to almost quadru­ple by 2100. More than half of the 1.2 bil­lion peo­ple liv­ing there today lack elec­tric­i­ty, but may get it soon. If much of that pow­er were to come from coal, oil and nat­ur­al gas, it could kill inter­na­tion­al efforts to slow the pace of glob­al warm­ing. But a green­er path is pos­si­ble because many African nations are just start­ing to build up much of their ener­gy infra­struc­ture and have not yet com­mit­ted to dirt­i­er technology.

Sev­er­al fac­tors are fuelling the push for renew­ables in Africa. More than one-third of the con­ti­nen­t’s nations get the bulk of their pow­er from hydro­elec­tric plants, and droughts in the past few years have made that sup­ply unre­li­able. Coun­tries that rely pri­mar­i­ly on fos­sil fuels have been trou­bled by price volatil­i­ty and increas­ing reg­u­la­tions. At the same time, the cost of renew­able tech­nol­o­gy has been drop­ping dra­mat­i­cal­ly. And researchers are find­ing that there is more poten­tial solar and wind pow­er on the con­ti­nent than pre­vi­ous­ly thought—as much as 3,700 times the cur­rent total con­sump­tion of electricity.

This has all led to a surg­ing inter­est in green pow­er. Researchers are map­ping the best places for renew­able-ener­gy projects. For­ward-look­ing com­pa­nies are invest­ing in solar and wind farms. And gov­ern­ments are team­ing up with inter­na­tion­al-devel­op­ment agen­cies to make the are­na more attrac­tive to pri­vate firms.

Yet this may not be enough to pro­pel Africa to a clean, elec­tri­fied future. Plan­ners need more data to find the best sites for renew­able-ener­gy projects. Devel­op­ers are wary about pour­ing mon­ey into many coun­tries, espe­cial­ly those with a his­to­ry of cor­rup­tion and gov­ern­men­tal prob­lems. And nations will need tens of bil­lions of dol­lars to strength­en the ener­gy infrastructure.

Still, green ambi­tions in Africa are high­er now than ever before. Eddie O’Con­nor, chief exec­u­tive of devel­op­er Main­stream Renew­able Pow­er in Dublin, sees great poten­tial for renew­able ener­gy in Africa. His com­pa­ny is build­ing solar- and wind-ener­gy facil­i­ties there and he calls it “an unpar­al­leled busi­ness oppor­tu­ni­ty for entrepreneurs”.


Pow­er out­ages are a com­mon prob­lem in many African nations, but Zam­bia has suf­fered more than most in the past year. It endured a string of fre­quent and long-last­ing black­outs that crip­pled the econ­o­my. Pumps could not sup­ply clean water to the cap­i­tal, Lusa­ka, and indus­tries had to slash pro­duc­tion, lead­ing to mas­sive job lay-offs.

The source of Zam­bi­a’s ener­gy woes is the worst drought in south­ern Africa in 35 years. The nation gets near­ly 100% of its elec­tric­i­ty from hydropow­er, most­ly from three large dams, where water lev­els have plum­met­ed. Near­by Zim­bab­we, South Africa and Botswana have also had to cur­tail elec­tric­i­ty pro­duc­tion. And water short­ages might get worse. Pro­jec­tions sug­gest that the warm­ing cli­mate could reduce rain­fall in south­ern Africa even fur­ther in the sec­ond half of the twen­ty-first century.

Renew­able ener­gy could help to fill the gap, because wind and solar projects can be built much more quick­ly than hydropow­er, nuclear or fos­sil-fuel plants. And green-pow­er instal­la­tions can be expand­ed piece­meal as demand increases.

Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya, Moroc­co and South Africa are lead­ing the charge to build up renew­able pow­er, but one of the biggest bar­ri­ers is insuf­fi­cient data. Most exist­ing maps of wind and solar resources in Africa do not con­tain enough detailed infor­ma­tion to allow com­pa­nies to select sites for projects, says Grace Wu, an ener­gy researcher at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia, Berke­ley. She co-authored a report on plan­ning renew­able-ener­gy zones in 21 African coun­tries, a joint project by the Lawrence Berke­ley Nation­al Lab­o­ra­to­ry (LBNL) in Cal­i­for­nia and the Inter­na­tion­al Renew­able Ener­gy Agency (IRENA) in Abu Dhabi. The study is the most com­pre­hen­sive map­ping effort so far for most of those coun­tries, says Wu. It weighs the amount of solar and wind ener­gy in the nations, along with fac­tors such as whether pow­er projects would be close to trans­mis­sion infra­struc­ture and cus­tomers, and whether they would cause social or envi­ron­men­tal harm. “The IRENA–LBNL study is the only one that has applied a con­sis­tent method­ol­o­gy across a large region of Africa,” says Wu. High-res­o­lu­tion mea­sure­ments of wind and solar resources have typ­i­cal­ly been done by gov­ern­ment researchers or com­pa­nies, which kept tight con­trol of their data. The Berke­ley team used a com­bi­na­tion of satel­lite and ground mea­sure­ments pur­chased from Vaisala, an envi­ron­men­tal mon­i­tor­ing com­pa­ny based in Fin­land that has since made those data pub­licly avail­able through IRE­NA’s Glob­al Atlas for Renew­able Ener­gy. The team also incor­po­rat­ed geospa­tial data—the loca­tions of roads, towns, exist­ing pow­er lines and oth­er factors—that could influ­ence deci­sions about where to put ener­gy projects. “If there’s a for­est, you don’t want to cut it down and put a solar plant there,” says co-author Ran­jit Desh­mukh, also an ener­gy researcher at Berkeley.

The amount of green ener­gy that could be har­vest­ed in Africa is absolute­ly mas­sive, accord­ing to anoth­er IRENA report, which syn­the­sized 6 region­al stud­ies and found poten­tial for 300 mil­lion megawatts of solar pho­to­volta­ic pow­er and more than 250 mil­lion megawatts of wind. By con­trast, the total installed gen­er­at­ing capacity—the amount of elec­tric­i­ty the entire con­ti­nent could pro­duce if all pow­er plants were run­ning at full tilt—was just 150,000 megawatts at the end of 2015. Solar and wind pow­er account­ed for only 3.6% of that.

Cred­it: Nature, Novem­ber 2, 2016, doi:10.1038/539020a

The esti­mate of wind resources came as a sur­prise, says Oliv­er Knight, a senior ener­gy spe­cial­ist for the World Bank’s Ener­gy Sec­tor Man­age­ment Assis­tance Pro­gram in Wash­ing­ton DC. Although peo­ple have long been aware of Africa’s solar poten­tial, he says, as of about a decade ago, few local deci­sion-mak­ers rec­og­nized the strength of the wind. “Peo­ple would have told you there isn’t any wind in regions such as East Africa.”

The World Bank is doing its own stud­ies, which will assess wind speeds and solar radi­a­tion at least every 10 min­utes at select­ed sites across tar­get coun­tries. It will ask gov­ern­ments to add their own geospa­tial data, and will com­bine all the infor­ma­tion into a user-friend­ly for­mat that is freely avail­able and does­n’t require advanced tech­ni­cal knowl­edge, says Knight.“It should be pos­si­ble for a mid-lev­el civ­il ser­vant in a devel­op­ing coun­try to get online and actu­al­ly start play­ing with this.”


In the semi-arid Karoo region of South Africa, a con­stel­la­tion of bright white wind tur­bines ris­es 150 metres above the rolling grass­land. Main­stream Renew­able Pow­er brought this project online in July, 17 months after start­ing con­struc­tion. The 35 tur­bines add 80 megawatts to South Africa’s sup­ply, enough to pow­er about 70,000 homes there.

The Noupoort Wind Farm is just one of about 100 wind and solar projects that South Africa has devel­oped in the past 4 years, as prices fell below that of coal and con­struc­tion lagged on two new mas­sive coal plants. South Africa is primed to move quick­ly to expand renew­able ener­gy, in part thanks to its invest­ment in data.

Envi­ron­men­tal sci­en­tist Lydia Cape works for the Coun­cil for Sci­en­tif­ic and Indus­tri­al Research, a nation­al lab in Stel­len­bosch. She and her team have cre­at­ed plan­ning maps for large-scale wind and solar devel­op­ment and grid expan­sion. Start­ing with data on the ener­gy resources, they assessed pos­si­ble devel­op­ment sites for many types of socio-eco­nom­ic and envi­ron­men­tal impact, includ­ing prox­im­i­ty to elec­tric­i­ty demand, eco­nom­ic ben­e­fits and effects on biodiversity.

The South African gov­ern­ment accept­ed the team’s rec­om­men­da­tions and des­ig­nat­ed eight Renew­able Ener­gy Devel­op­ment Zones that are close to con­sumers and to trans­mis­sion infrastructure—and where pow­er projects will cause the least harm to peo­ple and ecosys­tems. They total “about 80,000 square kilo­me­tres, the size of Ire­land or Scot­land, rough­ly”, says Cape. The areas have been giv­en stream­lined envi­ron­men­tal autho­riza­tion for renew­able projects and trans­mis­sion cor­ri­dors, she says.

But for African nations to go green in a big way, they will need a huge influx of cash. Meet­ing sub-Saha­ran Africa’s pow­er needs will cost US$40.8 bil­lion a year, equiv­a­lent to 6.35% of Africa’s gross domes­tic prod­uct, accord­ing to the World Bank. Exist­ing pub­lic fund­ing falls far short, so attract­ing pri­vate investors is cru­cial. Yet many investors per­ceive African coun­tries as risky, in part because agree­ments there require long and com­plex nego­ti­a­tions and cap­i­tal costs are high. “It’s a real chal­lenge,” says Daniel Kam­men, a spe­cial envoy for ener­gy for the US Depart­ment of State and an ener­gy researcher at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia, Berke­ley. “Many of these coun­tries have not had the best cred­it ratings.”

Elham Ibrahim, the African Union’s com­mis­sion­er for infra­struc­ture and ener­gy, advis­es coun­tries to take steps to reas­sure pri­vate investors. Clear leg­is­la­tion sup­port­ing renew­able ener­gy is key, she says, along with a track record of enforc­ing com­mer­cial laws.

South Africa is set­ting a good exam­ple. In 2011, it estab­lished a trans­par­ent process for project bid­ding called the Renew­able Ener­gy Inde­pen­dent Pow­er Pro­duc­er Pro­cure­ment Pro­gramme (REIPPPP). The pro­gramme has gen­er­at­ed pri­vate invest­ments of more than $14 bil­lion to devel­op 6,327 megawatts of wind and solar.

Main­stream Renew­able Pow­er has won con­tracts for six wind farms and two solar pho­to­volta­ic plants through REIPPPP. “This pro­gramme is pur­er than the dri­ven snow,” says O’Con­nor. “They pub­lish their results. They give state guar­an­tees. They don’t delay you too much.” Although the coun­try’s main elec­tric­i­ty sup­pli­er has wavered in its sup­port for renew­ables, the cen­tral gov­ern­ment remains com­mit­ted to the pro­gramme, he says. “I would describe the risks in South Africa as far less than the risks in Eng­land in invest­ing in renewables.”

For coun­tries less imme­di­ate­ly attrac­tive to investors, the World Bank Group launched the Scal­ing Solar project in Jan­u­ary 2015. This reduces risk to investors with a suite of guar­an­tees, says Yass­er Charafi, prin­ci­pal invest­ment offi­cer for African infra­struc­ture with the Inter­na­tion­al Finance Cor­po­ra­tion (IFC) in Dakar, which is part of the World Bank Group. Through the Scal­ing Solar pro­gramme, the IFC offers low-priced loans; the World Bank guar­an­tees that gov­ern­ments will buy the pow­er gen­er­at­ed by the projects; and the group’s Mul­ti­lat­er­al Invest­ment Guar­an­tee Agency offers polit­i­cal insur­ance in case of a war or civ­il unrest.

Zam­bia, the first coun­try to have access to Scal­ing Solar, has won two solar projects that will togeth­er pro­vide 73 megawatts. Sene­gal and Mada­gas­car were next, with agree­ments to pro­duce 200 and 40 megawatts, respec­tive­ly. Ethiopia has just joined, and the IFC will give two fur­ther coun­tries access to the pro­gramme soon; its tar­get is to devel­op 1,000 megawatts in the first 5 years.


That pow­er won’t be use­ful if it can’t get to users. One of the big bar­ri­ers to a clean-ener­gy future in Africa is that the con­ti­nent lacks robust elec­tric­i­ty grids and trans­mis­sion lines to move large amounts of pow­er with­in coun­tries and across regions.

But that gap also pro­vides some oppor­tu­ni­ties. With­out a lot of exist­ing infra­struc­ture and entrenched inter­ests, coun­tries there might be able to scale up renew­able projects and man­age elec­tric­i­ty more nim­bly than devel­oped nations. That’s what hap­pened with the tele­phone indus­try: in the absence of much exist­ing land-line infra­struc­ture, African nations rapid­ly embraced mobile phones.

The future could look very dif­fer­ent from today’s elec­tric­i­ty indus­try. Experts say that Africa is like­ly to have a blend of pow­er-deliv­ery options. Some con­sumers will get elec­tric­i­ty from a grid, where­as peo­ple in rur­al areas and urban slums—where it is too remote or too expen­sive to con­nect to the grid—might end up with small-scale solar and wind instal­la­tions and min­i­grids.

Still, grid-con­nect­ed pow­er is cru­cial for many city dwellers and for indus­tri­al devel­op­ment, says Ibrahim. And for renew­ables to become an impor­tant com­po­nent of the ener­gy land­scape, the grid will need to be upgrad­ed to han­dle fluc­tu­a­tions in solar and wind pro­duc­tion. African nations can look to coun­tries such as Ger­many and Den­mark, which have pio­neered ways to deal with the inter­mit­tent nature of renew­able ener­gy. One option is gen­er­at­ing pow­er with exist­ing dams when solar and wind lag, and cut­ting hydropow­er when they are plen­ti­ful. Anoth­er tech­nique shut­tles elec­tric­i­ty around the grid: for exam­ple, if solar drops off in one place, pow­er gen­er­at­ed by wind else­where can pick up the slack. A third strat­e­gy, called demand response, reduces elec­tric­i­ty deliv­ery to mul­ti­ple cus­tomers by imper­cep­ti­ble amounts when demand is peaking.

These cut­ting-edge approach­es require a smart grid and infra­struc­ture that con­nects small­er grids in dif­fer­ent regions so that they can share elec­tric­i­ty. Africa has some of these ‘region­al inter­con­nec­tions’, but they are incom­plete. Four planned major trans­mis­sion cor­ri­dors will need at least 16,500 kilo­me­tres of new trans­mis­sion lines, cost­ing more than $18 bil­lion, says Ibrahim. Like­wise, many coun­tries’ inter­nal pow­er grids are strug­gling to keep up.

That’s part of what makes work­ing in ener­gy in Africa chal­leng­ing. Pros­per Amuquan­doh is an inspec­tor for the Ghana Ener­gy Com­mis­sion and the chief exec­u­tive of Smart and Green Ener­gy Group, an ener­gy-man­age­ment firm in Accra. In Ghana, he says, “there’s a lot of gen­er­a­tion com­ing online”.

The coun­try plans to trade elec­tric­i­ty with its neigh­bours in a West African Pow­er Pool, Amuquan­doh says, but the cur­rent grid can­not han­dle large amounts of inter­mit­tent pow­er. Despite the chal­lenges, he brims with enthu­si­asm when he talks about the future: “The prospects are huge.”

With prices of renew­ables falling, that kind of opti­mism is spread­ing across Africa. Elec­tri­fy­ing the con­ti­nent is a moral imper­a­tive for every­one, says Charafi. “We can­not just accept in the twen­ty-first cen­tu­ry that hun­dreds of mil­lions of peo­ple are left out.”

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