Renewable Energy in Africa: The Undiscovered Potential of a Climate Leader
Written By: Miranda Cuevas
Edited By: Iacopo Esposito
The African continent is experiencing a rapid population growth, an expanding middle class, and unprecedented urbanization and industrialization. This will cause the demand for energy to double by 2030 and multiply fivefold by 2050, if the African standard of living is to increase along with economic growth (2). The continent could address this growth by extracting the 14.8 billion tonnes of coal reserves or the 125.1 billion barrels of oil present, which is more than enough to give every household the same amount of energy (or more) that the average household in the United States consumes in one month (5). However, the environmental consequences of climate change are threatening enough to know this is not the optimal way to produce the required energy. Favorably, there is great potential for increasing solar, wind, hydropower, and geothermal energy investment and deployment (1). For example, Africa possesses the highest undeveloped potential for hydropower in the world (2).
With a variety of options for energy generation arises the question: how can countries in Africa make the transition to decarbonize their energy grids while avoiding revenue loss and growing their economies? A large portion of the funds necessary to finance renewable energy projects need to come from international institutions and donations from developed countries. Developed nations have both a moral and a practical obligation to financially support Africa. It is moral as the emissions from their own industrialization have caused the climate change issues that Africa is also experiencing today; it is practical as increased social and economic instability in Africa will prevent the continent to develop, fueling further migration.
Fortunately, international pressure and decarbonization standards are attracting less investments in oil and gas projects and greater interest in uncovering renewable energy potential (2). For example, Morocco, with the help of external funding, has become a climate leader. Over the past decade, the country made great efforts to decarbonize its grid and now runs 37% of its energy from clean power. The country opened the world’s largest solar power plant (Noor-Ouarzazate complex) (6) and made a pledge at the COP26 climate conference in Glasglow to inaugurate no more coal-produced power plants (7). Such achievements were possible due to the $297 million dollars in loans from the World Bank (6). Additionally, the government has decreased subsidies for fossil fuels, reinvesting the savings into education funds (7). With great effort, Morocco has set the example of progressive climate action despite its developing economy, encouraging neighboring countries to do the same.
Partnerships between African countries and international entities are another key element in the decarbonization journey. There are several partnerships already in place that serve as a framework for successful energy deployment (2). Among the most distinguished is the Africa-EU Energy Partnership (AEEP) and Power Africa. The latter is led by the US Government and has committed to the single largest monetary fund of 40 billion dollars, exclusively for clean energy in Sub-Saharan Africa (2). The AEEP is a cooperation by both continents that is actively working to achieve universal, affordable, and sustainable energy (8). Finally, a very important inter-governmental treaty from within Africa is the South African Power Pool (SAPP). This is an association comprised of multiple electricity and energy corporations from 12 countries from the South African region. Their goal is to develop the electricity market in the region and expand the grid to reach all areas of South Africa. Furthermore, they work to attract energy investment in sustainable methods of extraction (4). For instance, the Batoka Gorge hydroelectric dam is an energy project currently underway through a cooperation by Zambia and Zimbabwe (1). 2400 GWs of electricity generated by the dam on the Zambezi River will be shared by both countries, administrated by a shared entity and funded by General Electric and Power China (3). The partnership for this project will be a milestone in achieving local Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), providing reliable clean power to both nations, and even exporting to the SAPP (3).
Additional to obtaining external funding and creating partnerships, African governments must carefully address the cost of turning away from fossil fuels and any losses in revenue and energy capacity. A shift to renewables done too rapidly could create greater economic constraints within African nations which currently obtain most of their energy from fossil fuels. On the other hand, a slow transition will exclude Africa from energy markets and from partnerships with countries making progress towards net-zero carbon emissions.
Vaissier , François-Guilhem, et al. “Renewable Energy in Africa: Update in the Era of Climate Change.” White & Case LLP, 9 Nov. 2021, https://www.whitecase.com/insight-our-thinking/renewable-energy-africa-update-era-climate-change.
Rossouw, Andries, et al. “Africa Energy Review 2021.” PWC South Africa, Nov. 2021, https://www.pwc.co.za/en/assets/pdf/africa-energy-review-2021.pdf.
“Batoka Gorge Hydroelectric Power Station (BHES).” NS Energy, https://www.nsenergybusiness.com/projects/batoka-gorge-hydroelectric-power-station/.
“About SAPP.” Southern African Power Pool, https://www.sapp.co.zw/market-overview.
“Electricity Generation per Unit of Fuel Used United States.” Statista, 29 Feb. 2016, https://www.statista.com/statistics/216613/electricity-generated-per-unit-of-fuel-used/.
“World Bank Supports Morocco's Bold Solar Power Plans.” World Bank, World Bank Group, 17 Nov. 2011, https://www.worldbank.org/en/news/press-release/2011/11/17/world-bank-supports-moroccos-bold-solar-power-plans.
Alami, Aida. “How Morocco Went Big on Solar Energy.” Towards Net Zero, BBC Future, 18 Nov. 2021, https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20211115-how-morocco-led-the-world-on-clean-solar-energy.
“AEEP: Africa-EU Energy Partnership.” African Union, 27 Oct. 2022, https://africa-eu-energy-partnership.org/.