Renewable Energy (RE) in Africa

During the last decade, the ASC library’s collection has developed from focusing on (print) monographs and journals to aiming for a more flexible, hybrid collection which includes open access, free online material. This shift in policy contributes to the library’s objective to maintain a balanced and diverse collection of relevant research materials regarding subjects within the library’s profile. As a result, the collection reflects newer developments and covers more recent scientific discussions. However, far from being complete and representative, the inclusion of these free online documents is aimed to attract the patron’s attention to a vast grey area in literature beyond the monograph and journal article. The field of renewable energy (RE) is one example of a discipline in which vital knowledge is disseminated by free online or open access sources rather than through the classical scientific media.

In March 2015, the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) published a synthesis report on renewable energy potential in Africa: Africa power sector. Planning and prospects for renewable energy. According to its website, IRENA is “an intergovernmental organisation that supports countries in their transition to a sustainable energy future, and serves as the principal platform for international cooperation, a centre of excellence, and a repository of policy, technology, resource and financial knowledge on renewable energy.” The report presents a summary of IRENA’s first attempt to assess systematically the prospects for renewable energy deployment (here limited to solar, wind, biomass, geothermal and hydroelectricity) in the African power sector by 2030. It contains the results of six earlier reports, each focusing on a region in Africa. Paradoxically, the continent with the lowest energy consumption and Co2 emission has the largest untapped renewable energy resources in the world.

Solar and wind energy
RE not only offers the potential to transform the industrial sectors of Africa, but with decreasing prices and improved storage facilities, people, living in rural areas without electricity can now improve their lives with sustainable off-grid solutions. Mobile phones, the Internet, television, radio and refridgerators can all be operated with minor investments in solar or wind energy. Even those at the ‘Bottom of the Pyramid’ might get access to this ‘new’ electricity by prepayment or by leasing PV (photovoltaic) panels. According to the IRENA report, just the solar photovoltaic generation capacity for Africa is estimated to be more than 300.000 Gigawatts. A glance at the global mean solar irradiance map illustrates this vast potential. 

Global mean solar irradianceAlso the concept of wind energy is becoming popular on the African continent, but the potential differs significantly between countries (see map). As expected, North Africa and the East and West coasts have a lot of potential, but also a landlocked country such as Chad has considerable opportunities in this field. 

Sustainably sourced biomass such as agricultural waste (e.g., palm kernel shells, old rubber trees, and sugar cane) also contributes to meeting the energy demands of future generations. These sources (different from many biofuel crops such as jatropha) do not compete with the resources that are required for food production, such as land and water. Together with other RE resources, many African countries could become net exporters of clean, sustainable electricity by 2030.

This report shows how RE could become a game changer in the coming decades. Although RE is certainly not an easy solution for the global energy demand (intermittent energy sources such as solar and wind pose severe challenges in grid systems and will certainly need a back-up system of ‘old’ energy resources), it clearly shows that Africa might play an important role in these fascinating developments.

Wind speeds Africa

Energy policy
This will require careful planning on both national and regional levels. It also needs close cooperation between public and private stakeholders. Governments are increasingly providing information portals (e.g. the Kenyan government's Renewable Energy Portal) to facilitate the dissemination of relevant up to date investment data and to streamline regulations. A final, crucial factor (beyond the scope of this report) is the role of African policy makers. Success or failure will probably depend more on political decisions than on any other factor. Political instruments such as taxation and feed-in tariffs can be used to stimulate investments in RE but will provoke reactions from old energy lobbies (Spain, for example, has passed a series legislative measures resulting not only in subsidy cuts but also proposes a tax law on the ownership of PV-panels). A more specific African problem is the decision whether and how to invest in the expansion of electricity grids in rural areas. The alternative choice of off grid solutions might be cheaper but has the drawback of reduced revenues.

See more information in the ASC library collection on
Solar energy 
Energy policy of African governments   












Gerard van de Bruinhorst