Everything you have always wanted to know about renewable energy in Africa

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Dam with lake

© Shutterstock

Some 1.2 billion people worldwide do not have access to electricity. What is the situation in Africa?

620 million Africans - some 70% of the population - have no access to electricity, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa, and their number could rise to 750 or 850 million by 2030. Programmes designed to promote access to electricity should take this into account.

What are the plans for renewable energy in Africa?

Renewable energy is clearly on the rise. Over the last ten years, we have seen a fourfold increase that is in line with the ambitious targets that African countries have set themselves under the 'Sustainable Energy for All' initiative. However, there is no coordination of these plans. Some countries want to double their capacity, while others, such as Uganda and Cameroon, already produce 90 percent of their electricity from renewable sources. They do this mainly by means of large hydropower plants.

As to solar and wind energy, they look promising, certainly for Africa, but their use remains limited, not only because they are unpredictable, but also because of the capacity of the network. In order to maintain grid stability, unpredictable energy sources may only amount to 20 percent of network capacity.

Renewable energy in Africa today

  • Geothermal energy (ground heat): for the generation of electricity, especially in East Africa (mainly in Kenya and under development in Ethiopia and Eritrea)
  • Hydropower: almost everywhere with a lot of untapped potential
  • Biomass: mainly in Central Africa. Not yet used for electricity, but the potential is there.
  • Solar energy (photovoltaic): everywhere, with a peak in East Africa. Not only large scale, but also smaller home systems.
  • Wind energy: mainly in North Africa (Egypt, Morocco, Ethiopia, Djibouti ...)
  • Concentrated Solar Power (CSP, bundling of sunlight by means of mirrors or lenses): in South Africa, gradually extending to other countries.

But mega-hydropower plants are often controversial, aren’t they? They force people to move and have an impact on the environment and on river water levels in neighbouring countries. Just think of the Renaissance dam on the Blue Nile in Ethiopia.

And yet, they continue to be used. The large Inga dam in Congo, for example, has a potential of 39,000 MW and could provide electricity to several countries if the necessary high-voltage lines were to be built. However, policymakers should also take into account their impact on the countries downstream, and they are doing too little with regard to the impact of the Renaissance dam in Ethiopia. They may be aware of the problem, but there is a lack of coordination.

What is the potential of small hydropower plants?

The small hydropower plants are clearly on the rise. However, this is not about megaproduction. Cameroon has 262 micro-hydrosites, each of which can supply between 50 kW and 5 MW, together accounting for 300 MW. Compare this to the total potential for large-scale hydropower of 20,000 MW. DR Congo also has huge potential for small hydropower plants, just like Tanzania.

The interesting thing about small hydropower plants is that they are well-suited to producing electricity off grid, i. e. separately from the grid. They can provide electricity to remote villages without the need to connect them to the grid. Without these local power stations, it would certainly take the villages another 10 or 20 years to be connected! Moreover, it is cheaper, because you don't have to build electricity lines to those remote villages. Yet, funds are often lacking.

Why is that?

Over the past 5 years, mainly private companies, including companies from Europe, have been working on off-grid solutions. Think of ENGIE and E.ON in Tanzania.

But they encounter an obstacle. Rural inhabitants are willing to pay a little more for their electricity so that it becomes cost-efficient for the companies, while policymakers are sticking to the same, i.e. lower, price across the country which does not reflect the true cost of the off-grid installation. As a result, the investment will no longer be of interest to the private sector.

Hydroelectric power station in river

Hydropower plant in Rwanda © Shutterstock

What kind of biomass do African countries use?

Biomass consists of waste from municipalities, agriculture, carpentry factories ...  Particularly the carpentry factories in remote areas that are not connected to the grid are nowadays able to produce their own electricity using wood waste instead of diesel generators. The moment when using wood waste as a source of energy becomes economically viable to them can be a turning point.

But they need a capital that they do not have at their disposal. This seems to me a unique opportunity for 'third party financers'. They can either lease the power unit or produce the electricity against payment until the production costs are covered.

Coppice wood is essentially renewable, but in Africa it leads to deforestation. What is the solution?

Wood is indeed widely used for cooking, especially in rural areas, and our forests suffer as a result. Still, today there are already cookers that require less wood or charcoal. In the long term, we must look for other technologies such as biogas that is, for example, produced by fermentation of manure and excrements, as used in prisons in Uganda. Senegal and Burkina Faso are considering the use of slaughterhouse waste.

However, biogas will not be sufficient. We will have to switch to propane gas, which can help to combat deforestation and desertification. Electricity is still too expensive to cook with, but solar ovens that bundle sunlight are really interesting. Hopefully, they will be used much more in the future.

What about nuclear energy in Africa?

South Africa invested in two nuclear power stations and wants to build a third one, for a total of 1300 MW. Other countries are thinking about it, but it remains a controversial issue. African governments compare to what is happening in Europe, for example, where nuclear power stations are dismantled and nuclear waste raises concern.

African countries will not, therefore, take the initiative to start developing nuclear energy. However, they may be seduced by investors who pretend that a nuclear power station produces cheaper electricity than a conventional power plant. But that is only valid for the short term, in the long term nuclear power is more expensive.

Some projects include the installation of solar panels, but afterwards the expertise is lacking to maintain them. How can African countries deal with this problem?

We do indeed need expertise: technicians, people who can manage the installations, but also civil servants. Some countries set up engineering schools or organize professional training, but this needs to be intensified.

We could also oblige the companies that build the power stations to operate them for a while. Until now, they have been installing the power station and then they disappear, bearing no responsibility for the quality of the installation. By obliging them to manage the power station for a period of time, they must ensure better quality, which can reduce maintenance costs.

People wash solar panels

Solar pannels in Mozambique © BTC/Dieter Telemans

Do you think renewable energy is heading in the right direction?

There is certainly a willingness to do so, but we are yet to undertake the concrete steps to move in that direction. This is probably because policymakers still do not sufficiently understand the problem. I therefore call for the training of state officials. They need to see the importance of electricity in a broad context, even if off-grid is more expensive than on-grid. Off-grid electricity will reduce the incidence of diseases, improve children's education, make people more entrepreneurial and help the local economy grow. For households, having no electricity is therefore much more disadvantageous than paying the slightly higher price of electricity from off-grid micro-installations. We need to look for the right way to get that message across to the officials. If someone does not understand my message, it means I have not explained it properly.

According to the Paris climate agreement, we will no longer be allowed to use fossil fuels from 2050 onwards. Will that be feasible for Africa?

Some countries will be able to generate sufficient electricity, while others will experience difficulties in doing so.

Solar and wind power alone will certainly not be sufficient, unless the possibilities to store electricity become cheap, reliable and affordable. Countries that also have storable resources such as biomass and hydropower are more likely to be fossil-free by 2050.

But transport and agriculture will continue to use fossil fuels. You can of course encourage the use of electric cars, but then you need a very stable electricity production. I do see this happen for public transport, but not for individual cars, unless they become affordable.

Look where we stand today: most people use second-hand cars. We should have a financing system that allows people to buy new, more efficient cars that would reduce the use of fossil fuels. But I don't see a complete switch to electric cars in Africa in the next 30 years.

What is the international community doing?

It offers quite a lot of opportunities for funding, in the form of both grants and loans: the World Bank, the EU, the US development agency USAID, the Japanese development agency JICA and individual European countries such as Sweden, Germany, France and Belgium (BTC, BIO, etc.).

Pépin Heteu Tchouate

Pépin Heteu Tchouate is the CEO of a private consultancy firm (DEECC Consulting) in Belgium and affiliated with UCL. In Kenya, he works as an advisor for Power Africa, an initiative of USAID to produce 30,000 MW of extra electricity.