When Will Africa See the Light?

Lori Pottinger

Installing solar panels
Installing solar panels

It was a bright year for renewable energy in many parts of the world, despite the recession. Global investment in clean energy generation capacity reached a record high of $260 billion in 2011, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance. Investment in solar technology grew by a third over the previous year. Rooftop PV modules, whose cost has dropped by 75% in the past three years, accounted for more than half of solar’s growth.

Wind power didn’t see as much growth, but the news was still good. The Global Wind Energy Council reported that a total of over 41 gigawatts of new wind power were installed in 2011, an increase of 6%. China led the way with 18 gigawatts of turbines last year. At least 75 countries now have wind installations, for a global total of 238 gigawatts.

But one of the world’s most solar-rich places was left behind in this boom. Africa, which suffers from the world’s worst energy poverty, is still being left in the dark when it comes to clean renewable energy.

Africa has been extremely slow to develop its abundant renewable resources. Yet a ray of sunshine is peaking through these grim clouds. South Africa, which a year ago set out an ambitious expansion of solar and other renewables, recently set up an $100m fund for renewables. While Africa’s most electrified nation continues to dither over building long-promised large solar plants, it finally signed a contract to build the nation’s first large concentrating solar plant. The World Bank and Morocco are building a 500 megawatt concentrating solar project in that sunny country. A growing number of Africans are installing solar panels (mostly from China) to bring power to their homes, but the number is small compared to the potential – and to the need.

Africa solar potential
Africa solar potential

A new report by the European Commission’s Photovoltaic Geographical Information System (PVGIS), shows that in many parts of Africa the same photovoltaic panel could produce twice as much electricity as it would produce in Central Europe. However, in order to assess the suitability of solar energy to provide electricity in rural areas, this option has to be assessed against costs for grid extensions and with the traditional diesel generators. A combined analysis of photovoltaic systems, grid extensions and diesel options shows for each area which option is the most cost efficient.

The report also documents huge micro-hydro potential for much of Equatorial Africa, noting that most households are located closer to a river than to an existing electricity grid. Energy use isn’t just about electricity, it’s also about heating food and water. An equally important improvement in the lives of Africans would be a vast expansion of clean cooking stoves and sustainable fuels for them. Little by little, programs to bring clean stoves to Africans are making inroads, and saving lives and forests.

Perhaps the recently announced  UN "year of sustainable energy for all" will help spur a solar revolution for Africa. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon says the program is the start of an effort to extend universal access to "modern energy services" to everyone on the planet by 2030, including the more than a billion people who have no electricity.

The continent will certainly be one of the program’s top priorities. Less than 20% of Africans have access to electricity. This is one reason that megaprojects like the Grand Inga Dam, planned for the Congo River, continue to garner so much attention. But the recent “failure to launch” of the Inga III Dam (also planned for the Congo) shows the folly of waiting for corporate-sponsored megaprojects to “lift all boats.” The aluminum company BHP Billiton was to be the main buyer of the Inga III Dam’s electricity; but the slack economy dropped the price of aluminum, and suddenly the dam didn’t seem like such a good deal for the Australia-based company. It pulled out this week, leaving another failed megaproject in a land with thousands of micro-hydro projects ready to be tapped. 

Hope springs eternal that African governments, and the donors that support them, will suddenly see the light, and begin developing electricity networks for the people, by the people … and for the rivers that they depend on. Until that day, we’ll continue to call out the problems with destructive dams, and to promote better alternatives to them.