Developing Renewable Energy in Sub-Sahara Africa

15 Mar 2021

Renewable Energy in Sub-Sahara Africa

In 2018, the UN estimated that 53 per cent of Sub-Sahara Africa’s population do not have access to reliable power. More than $75 billion per year should be invested in power generating capacity to meet a fast-growing population’s power needs. Largely untapped renewable energy sources have the potential to meet Africa’s power needs.

Renewable energy is power from sources with “unlimited” supply such as wind and solar (IEA). It also includes hydropower (dam), marine energy (e.g., wave and tidal energy, currently at an early stage of development), geothermal energy and biomass energy. The latter are naturally replenishing but, in some instances, can emit minor greenhouse gases (geothermal & biomass) and or affect biodiversity (hydropower & marine energy) (NRDC).

1) Major sources of renewable energy 

a) Wind & solar

Wind and solar do not produce carbon dioxide (IEA & NRDC). Another advantage is that they are available in every country in abundance. Due to technological advancement, their costs are significantly reducing. A recent estimate shows that between 2010 and 2019, solar PV cost fell by up to 82 per cent. The same study shows that the capital cost of wind power project installation fell by about 50 per cent to 60 per cent (Schroth in UN-Africa Renewal).

b) Biomass

It is an essential energy source in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) and predominantly used for cooking (e.g., wood). Other biomass forms include municipal solid waste, landfill biogas and biofuels (corn ethanol & biodiesel) (Centre for Climate and Energy Solutions).

c) Hydro energy

In sub-Sahara Africa, hydropower is traditionally developed in conjunction with large water reservoirs. Current estimates indicate that 90% of sub-Sahara Africa’s hydro energy remains untapped (IEA). However, large storage reservoirs may affect biodiversity (NRDC).

d) Geothermal energy 

Utilising sub-surface heat in the crust of the earth to generate electricity is referred to as Geothermal energy (IEA). According to the U.S. Department of Energy, modern geothermal power plants emit no greenhouse gases. 

2) Benefits of renewable energy 

Energy contributes substantially to climate change with greenhouse gases production share of about 60 per cent (UNDP). Hence, there is a need to promote clean energy worldwide (see SDG #7, SDG’s target 12a & the Paris agreement). As suggested above, clean energy has a limited impact on the environment and human health, with fewer carbon dioxide emissions (NRDC).  

Transition to renewable energy also limits external energy dependence (EU). Despite these benefits, the share of clean energy in total power consumption remains relatively low, estimated at 17.3 per cent in 2017 (UN).

3) The case of Africa 

The energy demand is increasing faster in Africa due to a growing population, urbanisation and economic development (IRENA & OECD). The IEA Chief Economist, Fatih Birol, claimed that each additional dollar invested in the power sector in sub-Sahara Africa could potentially boost the overall economy by about $15 (United Nations University). 

The UN set the goal to ensure access to affordable and clean energy for all by 2030 (SDG #7). However, in Sub-Sahara Africa, SDG #7 is arguably off-target, even though renewable energy resources are abundant and largely untapped (OPIC). In 2018 the UN estimated that 548 million people (600 million people according to the IEA) or 53 per cent of sub-Shara Africa’s population, don’t have access to electricity (80 per cent when you consider only the rural population – World Bank). In 13 sub-Sahara African countries, less than 25 per cent of the people have access to reliable electricity (OECD). 

To meet its energy demand by 2030, Africa should invest on average $75 billion a year between 2015 – 2030 as recommended by the IEA. The International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) recommends allocating two-thirds of the generation capacity investment to clean energy options. In addition to finance, access to relevant technology, awareness and skills to utilise these clean energy sources are essential (Abubakar Kabir Aliyu et al.).

4) Some relevant policy prescriptions for Africa 

a) Attract international private sector finance in the clean energy industry by offering political risk insurance covering government interference, conflicts and currency inconvertibility (OPIC).

b) Off-grid renewable energy solutions, in particular, should be encouraged for those not served and underserved by grids, as they empower local communities, especially in remote areas (IRENA & OECD).  

c) Redirect sub-Sahara African government subsidies (e.g., in Nigeria) away from fossil fuels and more towards renewable energy (see SDG’s target 12c).

This article was written by Hugue Nkoutchou and published with permission.

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