African continent: a gold mine for renewable energy, yet unable to power herself

5445227221534_7738890217254African continent could become a gold mine for renewable energy due to abundant solar and wind resources. The continent is endowed with substantial renewable energy resources. It has 1.1 gigawatts of hydropower capacity, 9000megawatt of geothermal potential and abundant biomass, solar and significant wind potential.

According to UNIDO, about 50% of Africa’s hydropower potential of just over 1750Twh has been exploited. The total hydropower potential for Africa is equivalent to the total electricity consumed in France, Germany, UK, and Italy put together.

Africa’s energy sector is best understood as three distinct regions; North Africa which is heavily dependent on oil and gas, South Africa which depends on coal and the rest of Sub-Saharan Africa which is largely reliant on biomass. Even oil rich Sub-Saharan African countries continue to rely on biomass energy to meet the bulk of their household energy requirements. In Nigeria, it is estimated that about 97% of the household energy needs are met by biomass.

In the African continent, according to rural electrification elaboration of IEA, the overall amount of people without access to electricity has reached 600 million every year since 2002. Nevertheless, the electrification rate increased from 35.5% in 2002 to 40% in 2008 while the rural electrification rate was stuck to 22.7%.

This energy deficit has effectively stunted the African continent’s development with an estimated 70 percent of people in sub Saharan Africa without reliable access to electricity. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), Sub Saharan Africa will require more than $30 billion investment to achieve universal electricity by 2030. Rural sub Saharan Africa will require the vast amount of the funds with more than 85 percent of those living in rural areas lacking access to reliable electricity.

The interest in renewable energy in Africa is due to the recurrent crises faced by most power utilities. For example, in year 2000 alone, Ethiopia, Kenya, Malawi, Nigeria and Tanzania faced unprecedented power rationing which adversely affected their economies and currently Ghana. African countries are largely pre-occupied with the immediate problems of reversing the persistent decline of their centralized power systems as well as meeting the long standing and pressing demands for a minimum level of modern energy services for the majority of their poor-many of whom have no electricity and continue to rely on inefficient and environmentally hazardous unprocessed biomass fuel.

Meanwhile Africa can make good use of Hydro-electric, wind and solar power which all derive their energy from the sun to solve her current power failures. The sun emits more energy in one second (3.827* 1026J) than is available in all of the fossil fuels present on earth (3.9 *1022J) and therefore has the potential to provide all of our current and future global energy requirements. Since the solar source for renewable energy is free, African nations can protect their people, environment and future economic development and the world at large. Many African countries receive on average a very high amount of days per year with bright sunlight especially the dry areas (Sahara desert).

This could give solar power the potential to bring energy to virtually any location in Africa without the need for expense large scale grid level infrastructural development. The distribution of solar resources across Africa is uniform with more than 85% of the continents landscape receiving at least 2,000Kwh (m2 year).

A researcher from the European commission’s Institute for energy earlier this year stated that “0.3% of the sunlight that shines on the Sahara and Middle East deserts could supply all of Europe’s energy needs”.

The Desertec Foundation also suggested that up to 20% power demand in Europe can be obtained by connecting African deserts to European cities by building a large number of concentrated solar power plants in middle Eastern and Northern African countries to transmit electricity to Europe by means of very high-voltage direct current cables. They also claim that if only 0.3% of the expanse of the Sahara was covered with solar panels, it would power the entire European continents. If up to 1% of the desert were covered, it could power the entire world.

Africa has a large coastline where wind power and wave power resources are abundant and underutilized in the north and the south. The availability of wind on the western coast of Africa is substantial exceeding 3,750kwh and will accommodate the future of energy demand. In sub-Saharan Africa, South Africa has been named as the country with the highest wind potential in the region. The North African coast is another attractive wind speed region.

Although the contribution of the African countries to global greenhouse emissions is on a per capita basis, much smaller than that of industrialized countries, there is growing realization that Africa is likely to be disproportionally affected by the impacts of climate change. Of the particular concern is the dependence of the poor in Africa on rain-fed Agriculture, which is believed to be already under threat from unpredictable weather patterns triggered by what appears to be climate change.

Wind and solar energy require essentially no water to operate and thus do not pollute water resources or strain supply by competing with agriculture, drinking water systems or other important water needs. Compared with fossil fuels technologies, which are typically mechanized and capital intensive, the renewable energy industry is more labour intensive. This means that, on average, more jobs would be created for each unit of electricity generated from renewable sources than from fossil fuel.

The renewable energy resource potential in Africa has not been fully exploited mainly due to the limited policy interest and investment levels. In addition, technical and financial barriers have contributed to low levels of uptake of renewable energy technologies in the continent.

In order for Africa to make good use of her renewable energy resources not only for her benefit but also to save the whole world, she is calling from the rich countries to help her with funds to fully exploit her endowed resources. Moreover, “policy makers therefore need to send strong signal to all development partners of their commitment to the development of renewable energy resources as part of the process of developing the continent” by H.E. Dr. Jean Ping, Chairperson of the African Union Commission.