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Renewables in Africa

Dieter Holm

Dieter Holm, long-serving member of the international solar energy society (ISES) looks at the role renewable energies can play in combating climate change in Africa, and argues that the EEG (feed-in-tariff) legislation pioneered in Germany would be the perfect place to start.

Climate change affects all of us, but Sub-Saharan Africa most perniciously, according to the Stern review. In economies reliant on (eco)tourism and subsistence farming, the poor inexorably bear the brunt of climate change caused by better-resourced, large polluting industries which can reposition themselves with ease. For example, South Africa's vertically integrated state owned monopoly, Eskom, generates about 50% of Africa's total electricity and concomitant pollution through power stations running over 90% on coal. Eskom and Sasol alone produce 45% of the country's greenhouse gases. Many similar large companies in Africa feel little pressure as they are shielded by the Developing Country status of their host country.

However, Africa has 95% of the world's best winter sunshine area, receiving more than 6.5kWh/m2.d (Germany receives less than 1,0kWh/m2.d). Therefore Africa could potentially generate 95% of the world's solar thermal and solar electrical energy.

Other renewable energy resources are also abundant. This means Africa can produce ample clean and sustainable energy for its own use, plus a good surplus for export. The most important constraint is not the lack of money, men, machines, material or management but the motivation: it's the lack of inspired political will. Therefore, given suitable laws like the feed-in-tariff (FiT) and others, Africa could rapidly and effectively combat climate change while achieving the crucial local needs of sustainable job creation. Given a framework of low-risk, long-term contracts and reasonable FiTs, industry and investors will flock to Africa, implementing technology transfer – creating local renewable energy enterprises.

Africa has invested relatively little in the old centralised and vulnerable sunset fossil infrastructure. It could leap-frog to the sunrise renewable energy technologies, including distributed generation and co-generation: by way of example, cellular telephones are displacing old technology fixed landlines at a breathtaking rate.

Joining the dots in Africa

The lack of Eskom electricity in South Africa caused Rio Tinto, a major global player, to shelve a huge beneficiation project indefinitely, which probably means permanently. This entails the loss of 20,000 jobs in a country with an unemployment rate of about 40%. Suitable renewable energy incentives in place could have avoided this, not to mention similar catastrophes in Africa. The situation in affected neighbouring Southern African Development Countries (SADC) is comparable. None have implemented FiTs, and all are restrained under the lack of private initiative driving renewable energy.

The direct linkage between renewable energy and the 8 Millennium Development Goals is clear; they all depend on energy, which currently is not being provided reliably.

Goal number 8.6 especially – i.e. “to build global partnerships with private sector new technologies” is pertinent, and merits special attention.

The mistake of spreading developmental resources too thinly, creating unrealistic expectations while disappointing stakeholders through sub-optimal technologies and services should be avoided. Instead, a focussed strategy of building a viable renewable energy installation and service industry through suitable incentives like a FiT, followed by local manufacturing, where practical is indicated. A visible market penetration of at least 15% should be targeted per area and technology.

All renewable energy technologies should be very robust, low-maintenance, fail safe, modular, tamper- and theft-proof, as well as be protected against insects, rodents, dust and high ultraviolet radiation levels.

The full gamut of renewable energy technologiesshould be applied, depending on public domain resource assessments and local conditions, as well as probable climate changes.

Solar thermal cooling and electrical vehicles are neglected technologies that are suitable for Africa.

Increasing market penetration

What role do the different forms of renewable energies/energy efficiency and conservation play in providing access to energy in Africa?

Currently all three play a miniscule role, demonstrating a wide market gap.

If the well-heeled role-model sector of the population is not seen to be using renewable energy technologies, then these become stigmatised as “the poor man's energy”. This situation is worsened if the rural poor get the impression that experiments are being done on their back with unproven technologies in remote rural areas with typically problematic service delivery and difficult communications.

Provided the necessary environmental, water and food security precautions have been taken, energy crops/biomass can play an important role. Waste-to-energy technologies also fall into this category.

Major energy parks in the Sahara could contribute to regional development as much as oil wells could. It depends on the structure of the value chain.

Small-scale hydropower plants (less than 10MW) are also a very attractive option but have been found to be onerous to implement because of the non-existence of FiT tariffs. A small South African hydropower scheme took at least five years, while the Government wind demonstration project even took a decade.

Apart from a FiT, what else would help?

  • Awareness creation (radio is most popular in Africa);
  • Levelling the playing field by terminating overt and covert subsidies to non-renewables (€42 billion are projected to be sunk on subsidising fossil power plants in the developing world until 2030 [UNDP, 2000]. And despite its policy, the World Bank is often the financier;
  • Tax rebates often make little sense in a poor developing country, and can lead to distortions;
  • Uniform and transparent industry standards, planning permits and building codes foster fair competition and more reliable performance;
  • Africa has a community tradition. Community power systems ensure public buy-in and support;
  • The energisation priorities should be a) productive use of renewable energy (industry, business); b) health (clinics, hospitals); c) education (schools, training) with d) social and amusement, as well as residential uses coming provisionally last in Africa's relatively benign climate.

In Africa women generally are in charge of the household chores, plus food production/processing, and of energy procurement. If firewood collection could be reduced/eliminated through the use of renewable energy, then this would reduce/eliminate deforestation or even desertification in Africa, and climate change would be abated. It would reduce the health impact of open fires, and allow more time for study, leading to better work opportunities and family planning, reducing poverty. African women play a strong and decisive role in the household, probably needing little external gender-related interventions.

In addition, political decision-makers require relevant objective information, enabling them to make rational renewable energy-related decisions. However there is no harm in knowing the difference between kW and kWh, or between energy carriers and energy services. In developing countries, politicians are inclined to believe that the only energy carriers are grid electricity and oil.

Overlap with external policy

Most of Africa is importing fossil energies and their technologies. The populist tendency is to subsidise energy delivery through centralised systems, which are mostly under Government's political control. Consequently, service delivery suffers and foreign debt increases, causing more calls for debt release.

At present renewable energies replace little imported energy, except in countries with hydropower. Transport is entirely fossil based. Substantial replacements are feasible.

NB: this article comes from a speech Dieter Holm gave at a hearing on ‘renewable energies in development cooperation’, which took place recently at the Deutsche Bundestag (Germany).

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Bioenergy  •  Energy efficiency  •  Energy infrastructure  •  Energy storage including Fuel cells  •  Geothermal  •  Green building  •  Other marine energy and hydropower  •  Photovoltaics (PV)  •  Policy, investment and markets  •  Solar electricity  •  Solar heating and cooling  •  Wave and tidal energy  •  Wind power