Africa you never expected

 By Robin Wylie

Africa is a land of colossal rivers and endless deserts. It has more than 150 active volcanoes and 26,000 kilometers of wave-pounded, windswept coastline. And for Africa’s 1.1 million inhabitants – over 200 million of whom live in extreme poverty – the continent’s natural gifts offer a way forward in the form of renewable energy. This feature takes the reader on a journey through Africa’s most promising renewable energy hotspots, and look forward to how the future development of renewables could benefit the continent’s inhabitants. In the West, Africa tends to suffer from an unfair stereotype as a somewhat technologically underdeveloped place. This article would also let us show that, in cases like Kenya’s geothermal program, Africa already is – and can be in other areas – a world leader in renewable energy…

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The lights are out across Africa. Around 600 million of the continent’s 1.1 billion inhabitants still lack access to electricity — that’s more than the entire population of Europe.

In Sub-Saharan Africa, where the majority of Africans live, 68 percent of the urban population is unable to turn on a light bulb. In rural areas, the figure is 84 percent.

Africa’s power shortage means that, compared to its huge population, its greenhouse gas emissions are relatively small; despite hosting 16 percent of the world’s population, Africa is responsible for just 4 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.

But this picture is changing. According to the World Bank database, the CO2 output of Continental Africa increased by 25 percent between 1990 and 2011. This trend is likely to continue or accelerate in the future, since many of Africa’s national energy development strategies focused on carbon-intensive fuels.

That’s because fossil fuels are currently the cheapest option in Africa. But they are not the most logical one.

Africa has an embarrassment of natural energy resources: powerful rivers, plentiful sunshine, areas of intense geothermal heat and some of the fastest wind speeds on Earth.

The Sahara Desert, Morocco. Credit: Rachael Taft

Africa’s glut of natural energy resources makes the continent ideally placed to harness renewable sources in order to meet its soaring electricity demands.

It is already doing so. More than 20 percent of Africa’s on-grid power generation currently comes from renewable sources. As in South America, hydroelectricity dominates Africa’s renewable energy production, accounting for approximately 95 percent of all renewable electricity produced on the continent.

There is a hydroelectric presence in at least 36 of Africa’s 54 countries. The top producers are the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mozambique, Nigeria and — contrary to its reputation for drought — Ethiopia.

Hydro may be dominating Africa’s renewable energy sector, but it has far from reached its potential. Africa has exploited less than 10 percent of its estimated hydroelectric potential (far behind Europe, which has tapped around 25 percent).

Aside from its hydroelectric success, the story of renewable energy in Africa is one of unfulfilled potential.

Take the Sahara desert for instance. It’s larger than the contiguous United States and it’s always sunny. The solar radiation the sand soaks up could meet humanity’s energy needs one hundred times over. Yet despite this UV bonanza, solar power still has only the barest presence in Africa.

Solar energy currently makes up less than half a percent of Africa’s renewable electricity output. This is due at least partly to the fact that the sun-baked Saharan states in the north of the continent also tend to be rich in hydrocarbons. Accordingly, North Africa has so far eschewed its solar bounty in favor of cheaper power from fossil fuels.

Erta Ale Volcano in Ethiopia, part of the East African Rift. Credit: Indrik myneur

But with a little initiative, solar could boom big in Africa. In its desert areas — which also include the Kalahari and Namib deserts in Southern Africa — it has been estimated that solar plants could pay for themselves within just three years of use.

And Africa’s deserts could play another role in its renewable energy future. The winds which shape Africa’s sand dunes blow consistently, and are extremely strong in places, making wind energy a potentially significant source of renewable energy in Africa.

African nations have proved more willing to embrace wind power than they have solar; wind power currently accounts for around 1.5 percent of Africa’s renewable electricity production, around ten times more than the continent’s solar output.

Egypt and Morocco are Africa’s top producers of wind power, with approximately 550 MW and 450 MW installed capacity, respectively.

South of the Sahara, wind power dies down. Africa’s thickly vegetated central zone receives relatively little wind, making this region less suitable for large-scale wind projects. Towards the continent’s southern tip wind speeds can be high — Botswana, Namibia and South Africa are all particularly breezy. However, less than 50 MW of wind projects have been installed in Sub-Saharan Africa to date. That’s 20 times less than in Northern Africa.

But wind power may be about to pick up in Southern Africa, too. Projects worth $600 million are currently under construction to add 230 MW of wind installations in the region.


SEE MORE: Alternative fuels for african motorists by Nicholas Newman



Moving towards East Africa, another renewable energy resource begins to make its presence felt. The East African Rift (EAR) is an active volcanic rift zone, and stretches for more than 3,000 miles (4,800 km) from Eritrea in the north to Mozambique in the south.

The intense magmatic heat which wells up at the EAR has bestowed East Africa with a geothermal potential of up to 15,000 MW (as well as a few volcanoes).

Kenya, which has one of the highest geothermal potentials in the EAR, has so far been the most successful nation at harnessing it. The country currently has almost 600 MW of installed geothermal capacity, which it plans to increase to approximately 5000 MW by 2030— equivalent to 26 percent of Kenya’s total electricity production capacity.

But despite Kenya’s promising lead, other East African nations have yet to embrace geothermal to any significant extent. This is due in part to the high upfront costs associated with geothermal power, which may currently make it a less attractive option for public investment than other forms of energy. Leveraging investment and expertise from the private sector may be critical for exploiting East Africa’s geothermal riches.

Viewed as a whole, the story of renewable energy in Africa is frustrating . The continent is brimming with potential, and its people are ready to exploit it. And yet, with the exception of hydroelectricity, renewable energy in Africa has yet to get very far off the ground. As the International Energy Agency puts it, Africa is “resource-full, but not yet power-full.”

about the author
Robin Wylie
Freelance earth/space science journalist. Currently finishing off a PhD in volcanology at University College London.