Sub-Saharan Africa is starved for power, and with so little capacity installed, the renewable energy sector is increasingly eyeing Africa as a clean slate for development.
Although only 5 percent of the continent’s energy consumption was powered by renewable sources in 2013, 22 percent of Africa’s energy supply is expected to come from renewables by 2030, according to the International Renewable Energy Agency.
Already, countries and investors are making renewables work on the continent. Off the coast of West Africa, Cape Verde has set the ambitious goal of obtaining 100 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2025. Across the continent, Kenya is moving full-speed ahead in developing power, with nearly 75 percent of its over 48 million citizens connected to the power grid. Of that, 86 percent is powered via geothermal and hydro sources.
“Governments and investors are beginning to realize this opportunity, as witnessed by rapidly growing investments in modern renewables, for example in the power sector,” said Dolf Gielen, director of the International Renewable Energy Agency’s (IRENA) Innovation and Technology Centre to Forbes.
Obstacles that historically held back renewables, such as high cost and intermittency, are becoming less of an issue.
Evolution of Energy Sources
While historically the renewable energy sector has been much more expensive than fossil fuels, that is not necessarily the case today. Costs have decreased drastically in recent years, and the renewables sector has demonstrated rapid adaptability to new technologies and efficiencies.
Specifically, hydro and geothermal technologies are cost competitive compared to the use of fossil fuels. Renewable subsidies often fill the remaining price gap, especially for wind and solar. The median cost of producing power from natural gas and coal was about $100 per megawatt-hour in 2015. That compares to about $200 for solar, which dropped from $500 in 2010. Hydro costs about $85 per megawatt-hour.
And Africa has an abundance of renewable resources.
Africa has long been developing its vast hydro resources — with 28 GW of hydropower installed across the continent by 2014. Notably, however, Africa still has a wealth of hydro-powered energy to offer. IRENA estimates that 92 percent of technically feasible potential has not yet been developed. Central Africa has about 40 percent of the continent’s hydro resources, followed by East and Central Africa, each having about 28 percent and 23 percent respectively.
Solar energy is particularly suited to the desert regions of North Africa and some parts of Southern and East Africa. Solar energy can also be used at various scales, making it ideal for everything from industrial solutions to off-grid, household adaptation.
Wind power is well-suited to East, North and South Africa, with IRENA noting that Niger, Chad, Ethiopia, Kenya, Sudan, Somalia, Uganda, Lesotho, Malawi, South Africa, Tanzania and Zambia have great wind potential.
Africa also boasts geothermal resources, with an estimated capacity of 15GW, concentrated in East and Southern Africa throughout the East African Rift system. Yet as of 2014, only 606MW of geothermal capacity had been installed.
The Convenient Coalition
The continent’s vast gas resources, with about 600 tcf of proven gas reserves in Africa, are also lining up to solve the renewables intermittency problem.
“Six hundred tcf of gas is more than enough supply to provide electricity to the 600 million Africans without power, with plenty left over for exports, manufacturing, transportation, fertilizer, etc.,” said Rodney MacAlister, CEO of Monetizing Gas Africa Inc. in an interview with Africa Oil and Power. “Gas is lower in carbon and much cleaner than oil, and safer than other methods of energy, like nuclear. It is thus more environmentally friendly than other fossil fuels and enjoys many other natural advantages such as versatility, abundance, affordability.”
Caroline Kende-Robb, the Executive Director of the Africa Progress Panel, believes Africa is in a position to be a world-leader in sustainable energy, with the continent already building some of the largest, most unique renewable projects in the world.
“What we see is that Africa has got the advantage of coming in now without the heavy old systems that a lot of other countries and regions have,” said Kende-Robb. “It can proceed with speed and it can use the newest types of technology.”