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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