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PEI Spotlight Seminar: The Future of Renewable Energy in Africa

Renewable energy is essential to development and achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Currently, over 600 million people in Africa have no access to energy, with average electricity grid access a mere 20%. In addition, a mere seven countries on the continent have electrification rates exceeding 50%.

Yesterday, the PEI held its third Spotlight Seminar, which explored the energy challenges Africa faces today, and the scientific and technological innovations that will shape the sector. PEI chairman, the Rt Hon Lord Paul Boateng, opened the event with a warm welcome and a special thank you to our PEI Partners whose support makes these events possible.

Our Chief Operating Officer, Nick Staite, also spoke about the PEI exChange, a matching platform for professionals working in and for Africa that the PEI launched earlier this year. He explained that the PEI exChange was an extension of the PEI’s wider efforts to highlight great scientific, technological and commercial innovations, and convene professionals from diverse backgrounds with an interest in the African continent. The platform’s algorithm uses information that users provide including their industry, skills, and countries of focus to match them with relevant people and organisations working in and for the continent. Furthermore, the PEI exChange’s interactive projects map allows users to keep up-to-date with the latest projects and initiatives on the ground in Africa.

 

Challenges and Opportunities: Defining the State of Renewable Energy in Africa Today

Our first speaker was Professor Hesham El-Askary, Professor of Remote Earth Sensing and Earth Systems Science at Chapman University, who provided an informative overview of climate change and two innovative initiatives in Egypt. Professor El-Askary began his presentation by outlining some stark facts about the rise of serious climate issues on a global scale. For example, NASA conducted a study that illustrated that, in 2016, the Eastern Mediterranean suffered the worst drought in 1000 years. Furthermore, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has noted that the current concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is 410 parts per million. As a result, we must cut greenhouse gas emissions rapidly and deploy renewable energy.

Professor El-Askary cautioned, however, that, if we are serious about using solar energy, there is a need for high-resolution mapping of dust sources in North Africa. To this end, he is leading a €3 million project named GEO-CRADLE, which coordinates and integrates state-of-the-art Earth Observation Activities in the regions of North Africa, Middle East and Balkans. As part of the project, Professor El-Askary is developing an analytical solar atlas of Egypt to optimise photovoltaics and Concentrated Solar Power system installations. This system is able to produce operational maps of Egypt at high resolution, which will support the design and decision-making processes for solar energy systems in the country. Professor El-Askary also provided an informative overview of the planned New Aswan Heart Centre in Aswan, a state of the art heart hospital that will provide free, high-quality medical services. The proposal also includes the establishment of an off-site solar farm that ensures energy self-sufficiency for the centre and surrounding residential area.

Our next speaker, Jasandra Nyker, CEO of BioTherm Energy, discussed her organisation’s work on the continent. First, she noted that 675 million people in Africa lack access to power, and, with the exception of South Africa, the energy consumption of Sub-Saharan Africa is less than New York State. However, this paltry access to power can be seen as an opportunity, especially since the falling cost of wind and solar across the African continent facilitates the expansion of renewable energy. Jasandra also outlined BioTherm’s wind and solar projects across seven African countries. She discussed the challenges involved in implementing renewable energy projects, including the creditworthiness of local utilities, long lead times, and the need for long-term planning on the part of policy makers.

We then heard from Engineer Ibrahim Samak, General Manager of Engcotec, whose company designs, develops, produces and markets photovoltaic projects. In a thought-provoking presentation, Engineer Samak argued that the continent has a tremendous opportunity to transition to a clean-energy powered future. He drew attention to Africa’s abundant renewable energy resources and noted that important technologies such as large-scale storage are already in place. As such, the continent has a unique ability to generate small to industrial scale electricity at competitive prices with low environmental impact. Engineer Samak argued that mini-grids and hybrid power solutions permit cost-effective use of renewable energy and energy efficiency. For example, smallholder farmers can use small-scale hybrid power solutions to dry fruit and vegetables or clean agricultural products. These can then be stored for months, and provide them with additional income.

Following this, Mansoor Hamayun, CEO, BBOXX, discussed his company’s efforts to promote data-powered rural electrification in Africa. He explained that BBOXX aims to build the largest virtual solar grid in Africa, followed by the rest of the world. The company uses a distributed grid so that there are no wires between houses: each BBOXX unit is ‘SMART’ and is capable of sending and receiving data over the mobile network. Furthermore, its vertically integrated technology stack covers the hardware and software needed to monitor and control a range of energy systems, meaning BBOXX can provide electricity to the energy-poor and people with unreliable grid access. Although BBOXX has sold over 100,000 solar home systems to date, Mansoor noted that finding investors with confidence in the off-grid solar market and Africa had been a challenge.

Our final speaker in the morning was Ana Hajduka, Founder and CEO of Africa GreenCo. Ana argued that the current model of bilateral financing is insufficient, as it relies solely on the credit strength of a single offtaker. Furthermore, it requires to governments to underwrite utilities’ obligations, putting significant strain on sovereign balance sheets. She also discussed Africa GreenCo’s efforts to create more liquid power markets in Sub-Saharan Africa by focusing on three factors: the existing power pools in the region, small national customer base, and macroeconomic challenges.

From there, Lord Boateng invited our audience to participate in a Q&A session with our speakers. We were delighted to see the high levels of engagement from our guests and listen to the wide-ranging discussion. Issues raised included fostering local production of photovoltaic cells, transmission challenges, and the feasibility of deploying wind energy on the continent.

Innovation from Africa: The Future of Renewable Energy on the Continent

Sarah Butler-Sloss, Founder-Director of Ashden, opened our afternoon panel with an overview of key trends in sustainable energy, and her organisation’s award scheme for innovators in the field. For instance, decentralised energy innovations such as the creation of solar lanterns and PAYG for solar systems have helped reduce the high upfront cost of renewable power. As a result, this is the quickest and cheapest way of getting energy to disbursed populations of Sub-Saharan Africa. Sarah also highlighted the work of African innovators who are bringing electricity solutions to those who have none. One notable example is Ghanaian company and Ashden Award recipient, PEG Africa, the largest provider of off-grid solar home systems in West Africa. The company sells licensed M-Kopa products on credit to rural customers. Once paid for, the system can be used as collateral for health insurance and smartphones.

Our next speaker was Dr. Alex Money, Founder, Programme Director of Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment, University of Oxford. In his insightful presentation, Alex explored three tensions in enhancing access to clean energy in Africa: tactics versus strategy in policy, perfect versus good enough financing, and perception versus reality in vision. Alex argued that African policymakers should adopt tactical measures to address access to energy in the short-term, but must have a coherent strategy to attract the support of financiers and investors. Second, he called on development finance institutions and investors and financiers investing in energy to move beyond purely technical conceptions of risk to consider the real challenges in energy poverty and infrastructure. As he said, ‘Don’t let perfect get in the way of financing perfectly viable energy projects’. Alex also cautioned that distributed power generation offers much promise, but unless stakeholders carefully consider its strategy, alignment with on-grid solutions, and the financing models required, there is a strong risk that many regions will become disconnected. As grids fail, Alex argued that SDG 7, which aims to ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all, becomes impossible to achieve.

Following this, we heard from Alex Katon, Executive Director of InfraCo Africa. First, he observed that 621 million people in Sub-Saharan Africa lack access to a national grid with electrification rates dropping to just 17% in rural areas. Addressing this need is an immense challenge, as the International Energy Agency (IEA) could require US$600 billion to promote transmission and distribution alone. Whilst mini-grids offer a solution to low electrification rates, their widespread implementation continues to be limited by technical, regulatory and economic barriers. Alex stressed that InfraCo Africa capitalises off-grid solutions and mini-grids, allowing infrastructure businesses to build an operational track record and reduce perceived payment risks. An example is Virunga, an innovative portfolio of mini-hydro plants in Tanzania that will partner with local communities to bring power to households and businesses for the first time. InfraCo Africa will provide the risk capital needed to develop the first hydro plant and associated mini-grids to demonstrate commercial viability.

Our next speaker was Professor AbuBakr Bahaj, Head, Energy and Climate Division at the University of Southhampton, who talked about his team’s research on the ability of mini-grids to provide reliable electricity and their integration into villages across Africa. Funded by the Research Council and DFID, the Energy for Development programme provides solar photovoltaic mini-grids to isolated villages for power supply and to invigorate rural communities. AbuBakr also noted that the programme manages six mini-grid projects based on solar photovoltaic across Kenya, Uganda, and Cameroon with an installed capacity of 68.4kWp. AbuBakr stressed that the projects were designed around the needs of individual communities, with PV installed on a canopy to create a shaded meeting place. He also noted that the projects’ business models are community-based, rather than commercial. By placing connections in buildings around the mini-grids, community members actually assist with the running of the project. Furthermore, the project has provided managerial and technical training to involved community members, and a cooperative was set up to run the projects, collect membership fees and income from the sale of power and water. AbuBakr noted that the projects have truly invigorated the villages, as increased electricity has enhanced the provision of healthcare and increased commercial activity. He encouraged other renewable energy project leaders to pursue a people-centric approach by understanding and engaging with local communities.

Following Professor Bahaj’s presentation, we heard from Lucia Bakulumpagi-Wamala, CEO and Co-Founder of Bakulu Power, a Ugandan based energy services company. Lucia stressed that community engagement and outreach is crucial to her business’ work. Bakulu Power does not only provide clean energy products, but also seeks to support communities by employing local labour forces. This is especially pertinent considering that 77% of Uganda’s population is under 30, and 11 million young people are unemployed. Lucia also discussed Bakulu Power’s creation of three solar mini-grids to supply power on Kiregi, Namite, and Lubya Islands, which aim to supply power to at least 2,300 connections and directly create at least nine jobs related to the power system. She also discussed the company’s construction of an ice plant on Kiregi island, which aims to stimulate the industry there.

Our final speaker, Wadé Owojori of the GSMA, discussed the organisation’s Mobile for Energy Access initiative, which showcases how innovative mobile operators and service providers are unlocking new models to deliver energy to underserved consumers. Wadé pointed out that although 600 million people lack access to power in Sub-Saharan Africa, mobile networks cover 370 million, which is only set to increase. Mobile operators and service providers have seized this opportunity and made important strides in leveraging the ubiquity of mobile technology to deliver energy to customers in need. A great example is PAYG solar, which demonstrates how mobile technology can help make clean energy affordable and create sustainable business models. PAYG solar emerged from the convergence of several mobile innovations including mobile payments, M2M connectivity, and cloud computing, and is beginning to achieve impressive commercial scale. What makes the model so impactful is that it enables flexible payment terms for consumers while collecting intelligence on end users and the systems they are using through M2M connectivity. Wadé also cited the experience of Ugandan company, Fenix, who received a grant from the GSMA in 2013 to scale their ReadyPay solar solution with MTN Uganda. Customers can purchase the ReadyPay unit by paying small and flexible installments on MTN’s mobile money platform. As of 2017, Fenix has installed 125,000 ReadyPay solar units, reaching 750,000 Ugandans with clean and affordable energy. This translates into a range of development benefits, including enhanced educational outcomes and extra productive hours for businesses.

Our guests then embarked on another rich discussion with our panelists, which explored issues such as productive uses of energy, the quality and efficiency of solar panels, and the appetite of African governments to invest public money in energy infrastructure. Lord Boateng closed the event by calling on guests to be activists in the expansion of clean and sustainable energy on the continent.

Thanks go to our distinguished speakers for their illuminating presentations, as well as our attendees for their active participation! We are especially grateful for our PEI Partners whose assistance makes these events a reality.

Continue the conversation on the PEI exChange, our online community.

 

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