Africa has huge untapped resources for renewable energy, with the potential for electricity generated from wind and solar to surpass total projected demand in 2030, according to new research.
Well-chosen sites together with interconnectors that allow resources to be shared between countries suggestAfrica’s rapidly growing electricity demand could be met with renewable sources at a similar cost to conventional fossil fuel generation, say the authors.
The research coincides with the Sustainable Energy for All Forum in New York, where global leaders pushed for greater urgency in achieving universal access to clean, affordable energy.
Access for all
Africa has the lowest per capita electricity consumption in the world. On top of a lack of generation, access to electricity is a serious challenge. Just 37% of the population had access to electricity in 2014, according to the Sustainable Energy for All Forum.
A report by the World Bank Group and the International Energy Agency, released earlier this week as part of the event, highlights how the speed of electrification in Africa is failing to keep pace with a rapidly rising population. The report says:
“[In 2014] the vast majority of those without access [to electricity] lived in rural areas…where the race against demographic growth is largely being lost.”
The graphic below, from the report, shows the location of the 1.06 billion people across the world who still lack access to electricity. Rural Africa accounts for 45% of the total, with a further 10% spread across Africa’s cities.
Though electricity generation is currently low in Africa, demand is expected to grow exponentially, the new PNAS study explains. For an area encompassing 50% of Africa’s population (approx. 600 million people), the collective demand is expected to exceed 1,000 TWh by 2030, nearly triple their consumption in 2010. For context, 1,000 TWh is around three times current UK consumption, and about the same as Russia’s or India’s.
To meet energy goals without overexposure to what the authors call the “insecurity and high costs” of fossil fuel generation, African countries have been increasingly looking towards hydropower. But dependence on hydropower has been hindered by high environmental costs, barriers to international cooperation and transboundary water rights issues, say the authors.
Of the alternatives, the potential for wind and solar generated electricity to meet demand in Africa remains largely unexplored, they continue. Roughly half of African countries lack basic assessments of potential wind and solar capacity and renewables’ contribution to the overall power mix remains around the 1% mark for the continent as a whole.
While the reasons for this are partly down to difficulties attracting investment in Sub-Saharan Africa, others are more specific to renewable energy, says Oliver Knight, a senior energy specialist at the World Bank. He tells Carbon Brief:
“Lack of knowledge of the wind resource potential in Sub-Saharan Africa, prior to a few years ago, has hampered development. Solar was probably better understood, although not at any level of detail.”
Falling costs of wind and solar has fuelled a growth in renewable energy in a handful of African countries, the new paper notes. The levelised cost of wind power is already on a par with hydropower in Ghana and Kenya, for example. But renewable electricity in Africa has been held back by the perception that it is expensive relative to fossil fuels, says Orvika Rosnes, a researcher at Statistics Norway who was not involved in the study. She tells Carbon Brief:
“In a continent where the gap between electricity demand and supply is so large and financing difficult, getting as many kilowatt hours for every penny as possible has been a priority.”
The new study set out to address some of these issues, by exploring the potential for the expansion of low-cost renewable electricity in Africa to meet projected total demand in 2030.
The authors developed a tool to map the best available new sites for solar and wind power in 21 different countries: Angola, Botswana, Burundi, Djibouti, Democratic Republic of Congo, Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya, Lesotho, Libya, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, Rwanda, South Africa, Sudan, Swaziland, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. Collectively, these countries make up the East Africa Power Pool (EAPP) and the Southern Africa Power Pool (SAPP).
Based on the quantity and quality of the resource (ie. wind speed, sunshine hours) together with other human and physical markers of suitability (eg. slope, elevation, temperature, population density, proximity to transport links etc), the maximum possible potential for wind and solar power across all 21 countries, outstrips projected demand in 2030 by at least a factor of two, according to the results.
But these potential resources are unevenly distributed between and within countries. In the maps below from the paper, dark blue represents areas with the highest potential for wind (left), solar PV (centre) and concentrated solar power (CSP; right). Yellow signifies areas with the lowest potential.
The authors then narrowed down the potential locations to those that were also close to transmission lines and were likely to have minimal environmental impact. Dr Grace Wu, an ecological economist at UC Berkeley and lead author on the paper, tells Carbon Brief:
“It doesn’t make sense to pursue the windiest or sunniest sites if they are located very far from the nearest grid infrastructure, or where the electricity would be consumed.”
The results show Tanzania, Swaziland, Djibouti and Libya are all able to meet 30% of their demand with accessible, low-impact, and cost-effective wind sites. The paper calls these “no regrets” options.
Similarly, some countries (Tanzania, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Lesotho, Ethiopia, Sudan and Uganda) could meet 30% of their projected 2030 demand with domestically-produced solar PV. But this is not the case for all. For Zambia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Angola, South Africa, Egypt, Kenya and Libya, the paper says meeting 2030 targets “would require investing in transmission extensions to access lower-cost PV resources or importing from neighbours”.
Renewable energy generation varies in space and time, which further highlights the need for interconnections as a way of sharing resources between regions, say the authors.
With a combination of “no regrets” wind and solar, interconnections and selecting sites with wind-speed regimes that generate most when demand is highest, renewable electricity in Africa can be competitive on cost with conventional generation, the paper explains.
While some African countries are already considering new interconnections, they are typically designed for conventional and hydroelectric generation. Those required to support renewables may be substantially different, Wu explains.
The potential for cost-competitive renewables pushes back against the argument that coal is the solution to poverty and lack of access to electricity in Africa, says Prof Daniel Kammen, a professor of energy at the University of California, Berkeley, and a co-author on the study. When Carbon Brief interviewed Kammen recently, he said distributed clean energy has time and time again proven to be cheaper, as well as more socially and environmentally positive. He added:
“I really feel that, unless it’s a totally unique case – and I don’t really know of any right now – the clean is beating the coal, except for some backwards looking analysts that are looking at what was the economics of renewables a decade ago.”
Renewable electricity deployment is gaining momentum in Africa, as evidenced by 15 African participant countries in the Climate Vulnerable Forum pledging in 2016 to move to 100% renewables “as rapidly as possible”. The new paper makes a very useful contribution to this fast-moving field, says Rosnes. She tells Carbon Brief:
“As new technologies develop and mature, it is important to include them in analyses…Good data is essential for well-informed (investment) decisions.”
Knight agrees, telling Carbon Brief that the paper is important in highlighting the need for investment in cross-border transmission. He says:
“The paper also makes the point that investments should not be considered in isolation, and that solar and wind resources needed to be planned alongside the development of hydropower and other resources.”
Looking further afield, Knight has been working with the authors of the new paper on using the renewables mapping tool elsewhere. He tells Carbon Brief:
“Currently we are also deploying it in Vietnam in support of a project to develop a solar PV strategy there.”
The grand plan is to take the mapping tool global, Knight says. But the scientists are mindful that moving ahead with new projects needs to be done responsibly and equitably. So while the recommendations for where to put new wind and solar plants from studies like these are certainly realistic, a lot more work will be needed to turn them into reality, he adds.