by Mubarak Abdulai Mahamah

    The Roll of Africa in the Transition to a Sustainable Energy Future

    More than a century after the light bulb was invented most of the African continent is still in the dark after nightfall.” This statement by The World Bank summarizes one of Africa’s greatest energy challenges and threats to sustainable development today – the low level of access to electricity. The importance of affordable and reliable power to economic development is unquestionable, and yet only about 24 percent of the population of Sub-Saharan Africa has access to electricity. Even in areas with access, power supply is unreliable and results in frequent power outages. The World Bank estimates that this costs firms a six percent loss in sales, that rises to twenty percent in areas with limited back-up generation. Furthermore, according to the International Energy Agency, for Sub-Saharan Africa to achieve universal electricity access by 2030, it will require over $300 billion in investment. It is therefore obvious that for Africa to have a sustainable energy future it will require not just committed efforts by governments, but also a strong collaboration between African countries as well as with foreign partners.

    The target of universal electricity access by 2030 is ambitious but possible. It requires tapping into various technologies. One important technology is hydropower (large, small, mini, and micro). The potential to produce affordable power from these sources remains largely untapped in Africa. In Central and Eastern Africa there is great potential for developing this form of power generation to greatly increase capacity.

    The use of solar power (photovoltaic – PV, and concentrated solar power – CSP) will also be vital in order to realize these energy goals. Aside from an endless supply of solar energy available all over the continent, PVs have an added advantage of being easily applied to off-grid solutions. The extension of power lines is both time and capital intensive. Due to these constraints, there is a need to provide localized power generation options. Further innovations in technology are needed to reduce the cost of PVs and make them more attractive. CSP is another solar technology with promising economics on a large-scale basis. CSP provides the benefit of a cheaper thermal storage option. It also provides the opportunity for significant local participation.

    Onshore wind energy also has strong potential for additional capacity in the northern, eastern and southern coastal zones of Africa. It is therefore not evenly distributed across the continent, however in those regions where it is applicable, it could contribute significantly to power capacity. Geothermal energy, as well, has great potential to provide cheap and reliable base-load energy. However, its viability is mainly localized to Eastern Africa, particularly Kenya and Ethiopia.

    To fully utilize these technologies, Africa needs to address various technical, financial, and political constraints. Off-grid solutions, that depend on wind and solar for instance, will require power storage systems to be put in place. Innovations that increase the capacity of power storage, while reducing its cost, would go a long way to increase electricity access in rural areas. The right policy frameworks will also have to be in place to attract the required investment and to encourage local participation. In Ghana for example, net-metering and feed-in-tariffs have been introduced to guarantee renewable return-on-investment. It is critical that frameworks also help stimulate local companies to build capacity to support the growing energy sector. Providing manufacturing services locally would not only ensure that Africans are engaged in the sector, but would also help to reduce the risks and capital costs of investment. The establishment of a continental grid system would allow energy resources to be harnessed and channeled to areas with the greatest demand and would further facilitate investment. With sufficient investment, the necessary conditions for developing capacity and increasing access would be in place.

    In a nutshell, the challenge of universal power access in Africa may be daunting, but it is equally a great opportunity to leapfrog the development of the continent. It will require Africa’s governments and entrepreneurs to work cooperatively. To realize maximum benefits, conditions have to be created to not only attract foreign investments, but to also strengthen local capacity. If these actions are taken, I believe by 2050, Africa will meet its domestic energy challenges and may also be in a position to export excess energy to other regions.

    Student Energy ran a global writing contest where we asked students to profile a daunting energy challenge currently facing their region and to present a road map for a sustainable energy future. The winning essay profiles a major challenge facing the African continent and charts some tangible solutions for the future!

    To read all the essay submissions, please visit Student Energy’s blog at studentenergy.org/blog.

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