Clean Energy: When Will Africa See the Light?

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It was a bright year for renewable energy in many parts of the world, despite the recession. Global investment in clean energy generation capacity reached a record high of $260 billion in 2011, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance. Investment in solar technology grew by a third over the previous year. Rooftop PV modules, whose cost has dropped by 75% in the past three years, accounted for more than half of solar’s growth.

Wind power didn’t see as much growth, but the news was still good. The Global Wind Energy Council reported that a total of over 41 gigawatts of new wind power were installed in 2011, an increase of 6%. China led the way with 18 gigawatts of new wind power last year. At least 75 countries now have wind installations, for a global total of 238 gigawatts. But one of the world’s most solar-rich places was left behind in this boom. Africa, which suffers from the world’s worst energy poverty, is still being left in the dark when it comes to clean, renewable energy.

There are a number of reasons why Africa has been so slow to develop its abundant renewable resources. Most basically, many African governments continue to regard renewables as indulgences for rich nations, or as inappropriate for powering a national grid, and so they instead promote dinosaur projects like big, destructive dams; dirty coal-fired plants; and even nukes. Yet many of Africa’s high-priority large hydropower projects will make it harder for the continent to adapt to its biggest threat, a changing climate.

Unlike big, centralized projects, renewables can be built in smaller units, more appropriate to the needs of rural African communities far from established grids. But obstacles abound. The smaller projects have yet to capture the kind of funding that donor governments have devoted to big dams and coal-fired plants. African governments have been slow to develop renewables-friendly policies, remove trade barriers for renewables-related equipment, and ensure renewable companies access to national grids.

Yet a few rays of sunshine are peaking through these grim clouds. South Africa, which a year ago set out an ambitious expansion of solar and other renewables, recently set up an $100m fund for renewables. While Africa’s most electrified nation continues to dither over building long-promised large solar plants, it finally signed a contract to build the nation’s first large concentrating solar plant. The World Bank and Morocco are building a 500-megawatt concentrating solar project in that sunny country.

Additionally, Kenya has pledged to be “kerosene free” by 2018, replacing the nasty fuel with clean stoves and lights, and is leading the way in tapping the East African Rift for clean geothermal power. A growing number of Africans are installing solar panels (mostly from China) to bring power to their homes, but the number is small compared to the potential – and to the need.

A new report by the European Commission’s Photovoltaic Geographical Information System (PVGIS), shows that, in many parts of Africa, the same photovoltaic panel could produce twice as much electricity as it would produce in Central Europe. However, in order to assess the suitability of solar energy to provide electricity in rural areas, this option has to be assessed against costs for grid extensions and with the traditional diesel generators. A combined analysis of photovoltaic systems, grid extensions and diesel options shows which option is the most cost efficient for each area.

The report also documents huge micro-hydro potential for much of Equatorial Africa, noting that most households are located closer to a river than to an existing electricity grid. Energy use isn’t just about electricity, it’s also about heating food and water. An equally important improvement in the lives of Africans would be a vast expansion of clean cooking stoves and sustainable fuels. Little by little, programs to bring clean stoves to Africans are making inroads, and saving lives and forests.

Perhaps the recently announced  UN “year of sustainable energy for all” will help spur a solar revolution for Africa. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon says the program is the start of an effort to extend universal access to “modern energy services” to everyone on the planet by 2030, including the more than a billion people who have no electricity. African leaders have been asked to create action plans for meeting this goal.

The continent will certainly be one of the program’s top priorities. Less than 20% of Africans have access to electricity. This is one reason that mega-projects like the massive Grand Inga Dam, planned for the Congo River, continue to garner so much attention. But the recent “failure to launch” of the Inga III Dam (also planned for the Congo) shows the folly of waiting for corporate-sponsored mega-projects to “lift all boats.” The aluminum company BHP Billiton was to be the main buyer of the Inga III Dam’s electricity; but the slack economy dropped the price of aluminum, and suddenly the dam didn’t seem like such a good deal for the Australia-based company. It recently pulled out of the project, leaving another failed mega-project in a land with thousands of micro-hydro projects ready to be tapped.

Hope springs eternal that African governments, and the donors that support them, will suddenly see the light, and begin developing electricity networks for the people, by the people … and for the rivers that they depend on. The world’s richest, highest-carbon-emitting nations owe it to Africa to help it develop its clean energy resources – projects that will help in climate-change adaptation efforts, rather than hinder them. Healthy rivers are priceless. Let’s not let Africa learn that the hard way.

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