Over two-thirds of Africa’s vast population, an estimated 600 million people, currently have no access to energy. In Sub-Saharan Africa, the average electricity grid access rate is a mere 20%. Furthermore, just seven of the continent’s countries have electricity rates that exceed 50%. Access to electricity is critical for development; it is vital in powering water supplies, telecommunication services, and strengthening health care and educational delivery services. Moreover, access to power catalyses economic development in rural areas and creates more jobs and new industries.
However, Sub-Saharan Africa has access to a wealth of primary renewable energy supplies, with enough geothermal, hydro, wind and solar resources to provide terawatts of power. The continent has the potential to source an additional 10 terawatts of solar energy, 1,300 gigawatts of wind power, and 1gigawatts of geothermal potential.
So what issues need to be addressed in order for the continent to take advantage of the wealth of clean energy resources at its disposal?
First, it is important to acknowledge that sub-Saharan Africa is rich in fossil fuel reserves, and already has an existing fossil based energy sector. Therefore, vested interests in established business models, and the cost of moving towards renewable energy may suggest a reluctance to change. In addition, the unreliability of renewable energy sources must be considered. Ultimately, factors such as wind speed and cloud cover are uncontrollable, and rapid changes in weather can cause electricity production to falter.
Another challenge lies in the continent’s technological capabilities. Not only does the renewable energy sector face a barrier in limited data availability (for example wind speed), but it also lacks local technical skills required for operation and maintenance. Concern surrounding these lacks of local labour forces have been reflected in a recent ‘Annual Global CEO survey’, which found that 90% of CEOs in Africa are highly concerned about the low availability of key competences. Investments in vocational studies will help tackle this ‘infrastructure deficit’ – the number of engineers who can build infrastructure, and technicians who can maintain it, will increase. In addition, these investments can help create more employment opportunities for these young people and empower them to make a positive contribution to society.
Despite the challenges outlined above, there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic about the future of renewable energy production on the continent. With plenty of promising innovation and development in science and technology, the renewable energy sector has come a long way in recent years, and knowledge and capabilities will only continue to advance. What’s more, as the market for renewable energy ventures grows, private sector investments are increasing.
The 310MW capacity Lake Turkana Wind Farm in Kenya, for example, which will shortly be fully operational, is Kenya’s largest private investment to date. The wind farm alone, which boasts 365 wind turbines, will provide Kenya with as much as 17% of its annual energy needs. For Kenya, where fossil fuels are the major source of commercial energy, finding alternative, renewable energy is highly important for advancing sustainable development. In the past, petroleum has accounted for about 80% of the country’s commercial energy requirements.
Another example of an extremely promising renewable energy scheme is The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, which is currently being built on the Blue Nile River in North Western Ethiopia. The dam is set to be the largest hydroelectric power plant in Africa. Not only is the project’s projected electricity capacity 6000MW, but it is also expected to create up to 12,000 jobs, as well as providing services in initiation investments in the likes of agriculture and fishing.
By successfully taking advantage of its abundant clean power resources, Africa has the potential to propel itself towards a renewable energy revolution. Through this, the continent could see large economic growth, the creation of a thriving job market and, importantly, improved quality of life for millions of people. Significantly, this abundance of clean energy also suggests that, if harnessed efficiently, the continent could reduce its CO2 emissions by 27%.
With successful projects such as the Lake Turkana Wind Farm in Kenya, and the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam leading the way, the future of Africa’s renewable energy sector is full of promise. It is our hope that projects and investments like these in renewable energy will continue to drive sustainable economic growth on the continent.
The Planet Earth Institute is an international NGO and charity accelerating science, technology and innovation across Africa. We have developed the PEI exChange – the first online networking matching platform connecting professionals working in and for Africa – to make it easier for experts to meet, exchange knowledge and showcase their work.
Join the community and drive change for Africa.