NEWS UC Berkeley, LBL, IRENA, RAEL team publish paper on renewable energy resources and utility planning in Africa

Renew­able energy has robust future in much of Africa

by Robert Sanders, UC Berke­ley Media Relations

As Africa gears up for a tripling of elec­tric­ity demand by 2030, a new Berke­ley study maps out a viable strat­egy for devel­op­ing wind and solar power while simul­ta­ne­ously reduc­ing the continent’s reliance on fos­sil fuels and low­er­ing power plant con­struc­tion costs.

Ngong Hills wind farm, Kenya

Using resource map­ping tools, a UC Berke­ley and Lawrence Berke­ley National Lab­o­ra­tory team assessed the poten­tial for large solar and wind farms in 21 coun­tries in the south­ern and east­ern African power pools, which includes more than half of Africa’s pop­u­la­tion, stretch­ing from Libya and Egypt in the north and along the east­ern coast to South Africa.

They con­cluded that with the right strat­egy for plac­ing solar and wind farms, and with inter­na­tional shar­ing of power, most African nations could lower the num­ber of con­ven­tional power plants – fos­sil fuel and hydro­elec­tric – they need to build, thereby reduc­ing their infra­struc­ture costs by per­haps bil­lions of dollars.

The sur­pris­ing find is that the wind and solar resources in Africa are absolutely gigan­tic, and some­thing you could tap into for rel­a­tively low cost,” said senior author Dun­can Call­away, a UC Berke­ley asso­ciate pro­fes­sor of energy and resources and a fac­ulty sci­en­tist at Berke­ley Lab. “But we need to be think­ing now about strate­gies for fos­ter­ing inter­na­tional col­lab­o­ra­tion to tap into the resource in a way that is going to max­i­mize its poten­tial while min­i­miz­ing its impact.”

The main issue, Call­away says, is that energy-​​generating resources are not spread equally through­out Africa. Hydro­elec­tric power is the main power source for one-​​third of African nations, but it is not avail­able in all coun­tries, and cli­mate change makes it an uncer­tain resource because of more fre­quent droughts.

The team set out to under­stand where wind and solar gen­er­a­tion plants might be built in the future under a range of sit­ing strat­egy sce­nar­ios, and how much renew­able gen­er­a­tors might off­set the need to build other forms of generation.

Based on the team’s analy­sis, choos­ing wind sites to match the tim­ing of wind gen­er­a­tion with elec­tric­ity demand is less costly over­all than choos­ing sites with the great­est wind energy pro­duc­tion. Assum­ing ade­quate trans­mis­sion lines, strate­gies that take into account the tim­ing of wind gen­er­a­tion result in a more even dis­tri­b­u­tion of wind capac­ity across coun­tries than those that max­i­mize energy production.

Impor­tantly, the researchers say, both energy trade and sit­ing to match gen­er­a­tion with demand reduces the sys­tem costs of devel­op­ing wind sites that are low impact, that is, closer to exist­ing trans­mis­sion lines, closer to areas where elec­tric­ity would be con­sumed and in areas with pre­ex­ist­ing human activ­ity as opposed to pris­tine areas.

If you take the strat­egy of sit­ing all of these sys­tems such that their total pro­duc­tion cor­re­lates well with elec­tric­ity demand, then you save hun­dreds of mil­lions to bil­lions of dol­lars per year ver­sus the cost of elec­tric­ity infra­struc­ture dom­i­nated by coal-​​fired plants or hydro,” Call­away said. “You also get a more equi­table dis­tri­b­u­tion of gen­er­a­tion sources across these countries.”

maps of African renewable energy resources

Together, inter­na­tional energy trade and strate­gic sit­ing can enable African coun­tries to pur­sue ‘no-​​regrets’ wind and solar poten­tial that can com­pete with con­ven­tional gen­er­a­tion tech­nolo­gies like coal and hydropower,” empha­sized UC Berke­ley grad­u­ate stu­dent Grace Wu, who con­ducted the study with fel­low grad­u­ate stu­dent Ran­jit Desh­mukh. Wu and Desh­mukh are the lead authors of the study.

The is avail­able in the Pro­ceed­ings of the National Acad­emy of Sci­ences and on the RAEL pub­li­ca­tions site.

Chart­ing Africa’s energy future

The team set out to tackle a key ques­tion for elec­tric­ity plan­ners in Africa and the inter­na­tional devel­op­ment com­mu­nity, which helps fund such projects: How should these coun­tries allo­cate their pre­cious and lim­ited invest­ment dol­lars to most effec­tively address elec­tric­ity and cli­mate chal­lenges in the com­ing decades?

Ethiopian wind farm

Wu and Desh­mukh gath­ered pre­vi­ously unavail­able infor­ma­tion on the annual solar and wind resources in 21 coun­tries in east­ern and south­ern Africa, and hourly esti­mates of wind speeds for nine coun­tries south of the Sahara Desert.

They devel­oped an energy resource map­ping frame­work, which they call Multi-​​criteria Analy­sis for Plan­ning Renew­able Energy, or MapRE, to iden­tify and char­ac­ter­ize poten­tial wind and solar projects. They then mod­eled var­i­ous sce­nar­ios for sit­ing wind power and exam­ined addi­tional sys­tem costs from hydro and fos­sil fuels.

The team con­cluded that even after exclud­ing solar and wind farms from areas that are too remote or too close to sen­si­tive envi­ron­men­tal or cul­tural sites — what they term “no-​​regret” sites – there is more than enough land in this part of Africa to pro­duce renew­able power to meet the ris­ing demand, if fos­sil fuel and/​or hydro­elec­tric power are in the mix to even out the load. Nev­er­the­less, choos­ing only the most pro­duc­tive sites for devel­op­ment – the windi­est and sun­ni­est – would leave some coun­tries with lit­tle low-​​cost local renew­able energy generation.

If, how­ever, coun­tries can agree to share power and build the trans­mis­sion lines to make that hap­pen, all coun­tries could develop sites that are low-​​cost and acces­si­ble, and have low envi­ron­men­tal impact, while reduc­ing the num­ber of new hydro or fos­sil fuel plants that need to be built.

Ngong Hills wind farm, Kenya

Call­away says that a few coun­tries already share power, such as South Africa with Mozam­bique and Zim­babwe, but that more coun­tries will need to bro­ker the agree­ments and build the trans­mis­sion lines to allow this. Inter­na­tional trans­mis­sion lines are being planned, but pri­mar­ily to share hydropower resources located in a hand­ful of coun­tries. These trans­mis­sion plans need to incor­po­rate shar­ing of wind and solar in order to help them be com­pet­i­tive gen­er­a­tion tech­nolo­gies in Africa, he said.

Other co-​​authors are Daniel Kam­men, a UC Berke­ley pro­fes­sor of energy and resources, Jes­sica Reilly-​​Moman and Amol Phadke of the Inter­na­tional Energy Stud­ies Group at Berke­ley Lab, Kudak­washe Ndhlukula of the South­ern Africa Devel­op­ment Com­mu­nity Cen­ter for Renew­able Energy and Energy Effi­ciency at the Namibia Uni­ver­sity of Sci­ence and Tech­nol­ogy in Wind­hoek, and Tijana Rado­ji­cic of the Inter­na­tional Renew­able Energy Agency in Mas­dar City, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emi­rates.

The Inter­na­tional Renew­able Energy Agency sup­ported much of the ini­tial research. The National Sci­ence Foun­da­tion and the Link Foun­da­tion sup­ported the expanded analy­sis on wind sit­ing scenarios.

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