Africa is home to 54 vibrant countries, over 1.2 billion people, and unfortunately, nearly 600 million people without power.
Africa is facing an energy crisis. Energy poverty and unstable electricity, exacerbated by governments and economic glass ceilings has seen Africa pushed into a hard rock and a hard place situation.
With the world watching and environmental activists touting Africa as the next green utopia that will skip the fossil fuel problems, mistakes the rest of the world has made – we are presented with a call to action. Which one? Who knows?
Electricity is the backbone of society. It’s used everywhere and plays multiple roles in people’s lives. It provides safety, further education, and improves quality of life, to name a few. Currently our infrastructure does not meet demand, which is where we are presented with an advantageous opportunity: renewable energy.
Renewable energy has steadily taken over the world and Africa may soon be next, and could even potentially become the leading force. With infrastructure not as well established as other countries, we find ourselves at a crossroads, fossil fuels, or renewable energy. I firmly believe that renewable energy is the way forward, but before we get into it – what exactly is the dilemma Africa is facing?
Africa is growing exponentially. By the end of the century, the population is expected to quadruple. With 600 million people at present in Africa without access to electricity, one could only imagine how much that would increase by the end of the century. Going off the population prediction, by 2100, we could well enter the territory of over a billion people without access to electricity.
In addition, by 2050, demand for electricity will quadruple between 2010-2040. With current demand already overwhelming the precarious power grid, without acting soon we will find ourselves in a crisis.
Which leads me to believe that the two big issues exacerbating energy poverty in Africa are inadequate infrastructure and overwhelming electricity demand.
Access or lack thereof, plays a massive role in energy inequality faced in Africa. With remote communities scattered across sub-Saharan Africa, we find two-thirds of the population – 600 million, without electricity.
The problem of infrastructure encompasses multiple elements. However, connecting to the power grid is one of the predominant issues. Obstacles in the way of power grid connections include; sheer distance, unsuitable terrain, and for small localised populations, it might not be seen as worth it when balancing costs (for telecommunications companies).
Planning is urgently required to address this issue, especially as six countries within sub-Saharan Africa are in the top 10 rapidly expanding economies.
Countries across Africa are heavily affected by power outages, brought on by surges. Electricity demand is at an all-time high, in Africa; it increases around 3% annually, the highest of any continent, yet currently, it can’t be sustained. Electricity is unreliable, and in South Africa, energy grid overloading occurs 40 – 50 days a year.
This is not just a South African problem, however, their power instability does affect other countries. For example, in 2021, Zimbabwe faced prolonged blackouts due to a surge in imported South African power. Zimbabwe does not produce enough of its own power and consequently relies on neighbouring countries like South Africa and Mozambique to meet demand.
With Africa’s rapidly growing population and urbanisation, more and more people are going to need power. With demand becoming greater, Africa is presented with a ticking time bomb – how they move forward will determine the course for 16% of the world’s population.
Renewable Solutions Small Scale & Large Scale
To address these two massive issues, we will be looking at renewable solutions from both a small and large-scale. For the issue of lack of infrastructure, I believe that small-scale renewables like off-grid solar and mini-grids are the way to go. They are quick, actionable solutions that don’t put added pressure onto the main power grid.
For the issue of electricity demand, large-scale renewable projects such as wind and hydropower have been highlighted. Wind is the most energy efficient, and hydropower is the cheapest renewable energy, currently. They both provide excellent amounts of electricity and are both becoming cheaper or equal to the cost of fossil fuel sources like coal.
As with any energy source, there are up-front costs. However, there is a downward trend in the price of renewable energy, so much so that they are becoming a more realistic and accessible avenue for Africa to implement.
Renewable Solutions - Small Scale
The inadequate infrastructure which prevents the proliferation of electricity is based on the sheer distance between remote areas and the power grid. Unable to connect the two, those living far out are left without power, which is where off-grid solar comes in. Off-grid solar, as in the name, refers to solar energy that is produced and generated without being connected to the utility power grid.
Off-grid solar acts very similarly to on-grid, but instead of excess electricity being sent back onto the grid and repurposed, the off-grid produced energy goes into battery storage, which can later be reused at night and on cloudy days. While battery storage packs themselves can be somewhat cost-prohibitive, the benefits of the electricity given, far outweigh the initial expense.
There’s also a mini-grid. It is a power grid that is significantly smaller and acts independently of the national grid. Power grids, unlike batteries, are a more community-based approach. When neighbours generate excess electricity, it gets put into the grid, and then is used by others. It’s a win-win situation.
Having a mini power-grid will provide people in those remote communities with a number of benefits. These include; night safety, better opportunities for further education (e.g., having a light on to be able to do homework at night), and increasing jobs. For jobs in Nigeria and Kenya, which have some mini-grid programs, they are expected to increase job positions in the decentralised renewable energy (DRE) sector; Kenya at 17,000, and Nigeria at 52,000+ jobs.
Renewable Solutions - Large Scale
The wind power potential in Africa is mighty, with much of the wind being faster than 8.5 metres per second. In fact, a study found that wind potential in Africa is at almost 180,000 terawatt hours (TWh) per annum, which is enough to supply the entire continent’s electricity demands 250 times over.
With wind being the most efficient renewable source, it is a perfect choice when choosing between fossil fuels and renewable energy.
Coal accounted for 22.1% of Africa’s energy generation in 2020. In South Africa alone, coal supplies 87% of their electricity. Coal makes up a large part of Africa’s energy, yet when placed against wind, it is outperformed. When comparing coal to wind, from an efficiency perspective, wind provides 1,164% of its original input of energy, compared to coal at 29%.
Wind is also a cheaper solution. It’s currently at 60c to 70c per kilowatt hour, 10c cheaper than solar and 50% less than the predicted building costs of the new coal power plants, Medupi and Kusile. This trend is growing globally, with two-thirds of wind and solar being able to generate cheaper electricity than their coal counterparts. In addition, as the price of solar and wind falls there are predictions that those projects could undercut the cost of up to 800 gigawatts (GW) worth of coal plants.
Hydropower, just like other sources of renewable energy, is underdeveloped in Africa. Yet, it is Africa’s most important form of renewable power, with the end of 2014 having 28GW of hydro capacity installed on the continent.
The countries with the most hydropower potential include Ethiopia and Kenya, at 260,000 and 40,000 GWh, respectively. Hydropower is a very cost-effective renewable solution. The plants have a long life (50 – 100 years), and worldwide, hydroelectricity remains the lowest-cost energy option, and has the most potential for usage in large-scale / utility endeavours.
Hydropower is a very critical energy source for a number of countries. 90% of the national electricity generation for:
is from hydropower. Over the last decade, there have been a number of new hydropower developments commissioned. If all the dams expected to be completed by 2030 are constructed, electricity generation capacity across Southern and Eastern Africa is expected to double.
Africa is in a great position to meet the ever-increasing demand for electricity across the continent in a sustainable way. While it is exciting and an imaginable prospect; it requires informed decision-making and careful long-term consideration and planning.
While some have put forward the idyllic ‘leapfrogging’ scenario, it would be naive to think that this will be easily achieved. As mentioned earlier, it requires planning and informed decisions; these all require time, and money.
These issues are not environmental; they are economic, political, and human. The coal and mining industries provide a lot of jobs; in South Africa alone, more than 120,000 people are dependent on coal jobs. This echoes the importance of careful planning.
Adopting renewable energy is a very real possibility and a cure to Africa’s ever-expanding demand for electricity. However, we must be careful to not become over-excited with the possibility of Africa becoming a green utopia, and instead focus on the reality and likelihood of this being achievable.
Rather than leap-frogging, I believe we need to take a small leap of faith and start with actioning small yet feasible projects like off-grid solar and mini-grids. The projects are essential for 600 million people to have electricity.
In addition, we must explore the large-scale renewable energy that will support our continent. With renewable energy becoming even cheaper than coal, now is a good time to invest in those projects and reconsider the need to build coal plants that could well be obsolete in the near future.
Africa is an incredibly rich and diverse country that could well lead the world into the green future. We just need to have some faith in renewable energy, investment and government cooperation.