Researchers from the University of California Berkeley have mapped out what they believe to be a viable strategy for Africa to steadily increase its development of renewable energy sources like wind and solar, while simultaneously reducing the continent’s reliance on fossil fuels and lowering power plant construction costs.
In a study set to be published this week in the online journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers from the University of California Berkeley used resource mapping tools and previously unavailable information on the annual solar and wind resources in 21 countries in the southern and eastern African power pools. The intention was to best determine how and where to allocate the limited investment dollars available to African countries to effectively address electricity and climate challenges expected to ravage the continent over the coming decades. The area included in the study stretches from Libya and Egypt in the north, right down the eastern coast to South Africa.
The researchers concluded that with the right strategy for placing solar and wind farms, as well as regional interconnection between countries, most African nations could lower the number of conventional power plants such as fossil fuel-based and hydropower stations they need to build, subsequently reducing the infrastructure costs inherent in such electricity projects, saving billions of dollars along the way. In the end, they found that there were tremendous resources available throughout the parts of Africa they studied to produce enough renewable energy to meet rising demand.
“The surprising find is that the wind and solar resources in Africa are absolutely gigantic, and something you could tap into for relatively low cost,” said senior author Duncan Callaway, a UC Berkeley associate professor of energy and resources and a faculty scientist at Berkeley Lab. “But we need to be thinking now about strategies for fostering international collaboration to tap into the resource in a way that is going to maximize its potential while minimizing its impact.”
The premise was to determine the best sites to place solar and wind farms, and the team modeled this under a range of siting strategy scenarios. They found, interestingly enough, that choosing wind sites to match the timing of wind generation with electricity demand is actually less costly than choosing a wind site which has the greatest wind energy production. They found that choosing sites based on the timing, combined with adequate transmission lines, results in a more even distribution of wind capacity.
“If you take the strategy of siting all of these systems such that their total production correlates well with electricity demand, then you save hundreds of millions to billions of dollars per year versus the cost of electricity infrastructure dominated by coal-fired plants or hydro,” Callaway said. “You also get a more equitable distribution of generation sources across these countries.”
“Together, international energy trade and strategic siting can enable African countries to pursue ‘no-regrets’ wind and solar potential that can compete with conventional generation technologies like coal and hydropower,” added UC Berkeley graduate student Grace Wu, who conducted the study with fellow graduate student Ranjit Deshmukh.
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