The Right Climate for Green Energy in Africa

Cahora Bassa power lines bypass Zambezi villagers
Cahora Bassa power lines bypass Zambezi villagers
Lori Pottinger
The world is greening its electricity supply at a fast (if not fast enough) pace. Germany is slapping solar on every building it can, Spain is becoming a world leader in big concentrating solar plants, and the US stimulus package includes a plateload of subsidies for renewables. At the same time, the price of solar technologies have fallen 35% since last year, and new breakthroughs in storing energy from the sun and wind appear to be on the cusp.

It’s not just the richest countries tapping into their green: India, which has up to 48,000 megawatts of wind power to tap, is already the world’s fourth largest wind-power producer. Its renewable energy department just announced a plan to electrify rural villages with solar panels. China -- already a world leader for new wind and solar generation -- is now planning a solar plant bigger than Manhattan which will power three million homes. This huge project landed its US partner company on the S&P 500 -- the first renewable-energy company to make the list. 

But Africa, where most of the world’s under-electrified people reside, is being left in the dark.  There are some bright spots: good-sized wind projects on the drawing boards in Kenya and Egypt, geothermal plants powering Kenyan businesses and homes, biomass-electricity in Mauritius and Liberia, and a plan for a big solar rollout in South Africa. But generally, the continent’s energy ministries lag the rest of the world. Most tellingly, Africa’s biggest renewable proposal -- a huge concentrating solar plant planned for the Sahara -- would likely provide power (lots of it) to Europe.

Many African governments seem to regard renewables as indulgences for rich nations, and are instead promoting 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.

It’s not that the potential for greener energy projects isn’t there: the continent has some of the world’s best solar reserves, plentiful wind along the coasts, geothermal in the East African rift, and other resources to tap. And 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 high-impact mega-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. And cost continues to be an issue: not only do most renewables cost more than conventional plants, but the cost of impacts from coal and big hydro continue to be left out of the equation.

One example of a renewables-rich land with few plans to tap them is Mozambique. The energy ministry wants to build another big dam and a huge coal plant. Meanwhile, 80% of the population is without electricity. Virtually the entire output from Mozambique's existing Cahora Bassa Dam is shipped to its wealthy neighbor, South Africa; a small amount is shipped back to Mozambique at a higher cost, with much waste through the shipping of those electrons back and forth across inefficient transmission systems.

My organization, International Rivers, recently teamed up with local environmental group Justica Ambiental and a regional energy expert to create a plan to help steer Mozambique toward a greener energy future – one that shares the energy wealth around the country while also sparing the Zambezi. “A Clean Energy Plan for Mozambique” -- launched this month in the capital city of Maputo and in South Africa -- outlines the nation’s potential for a variety of market-ready renewables and pinpoints potential medium-sized energy projects in all corners of the country. The report’s findings made headlines across the region, and even the New York Times energy blogger picked up the story.

Yet officials from the national energy agencies reacted as though we’d just delivered a load of rotting fish. One official went so far as to call the report’s author a “prostitute” for green groups. The problem: he criticized the energy sector’s pet project, Mphanda Nkuwa Dam (proposed for the Zambezi River), for not serving the needs of Mozambique’s population. Like Cahora Bassa, this dam’s energy will flow directly to South Africa. Additionally, the costly $2 billion project is likely to sap resources from renewables programs in the impoverished country.

“As long as the Mozambique’s power planners focus on the huge consumer next door, they will never adequately meet the needs of their own country, which remains largely off-grid and unconnected,” says report author Mark Hankins, an energy consultant from Kenya. “It doesn’t have to be this way.”

And South Africa doesn’t have to exploit its neighbors’ natural resources to improve its energy supply. Hankins says there is huge potential for cost-effective energy efficiency measures in South Africa that could greatly reduce the need or new big dams supplying the Southern African grid. “South Africa has the potential to quickly shave 3 to 5 times Mozambique’s entire consumption with energy efficiency measures. Demand-side management, primarily in South Africa, must be considered as an alternative to endless investment in megadams and coal fired power plants.”

For now, Mozambique seems set on keeping South Africa at the top of its dance card, and its own people in the dark. But South Africa is changing. Its utility (one of the world’s largest) has taken some very encouraging steps in recent months, including establishing “feed-in tariffs” for a host of renewables -- a key step in encouraging green-energy projects. Given South Africa’s “600 pound gorilla” status in the continent’s energy sector, it has the potential to reverse the notions that renewables are for the rich, and that “cheap energy” from destructive big dams and dirty coal comes without costs.

The world's richest, highest-carbon-emitting nations also 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.

More information: 

This article originally appeared in Huffington Post, and was subsequently picked up by Alternet.