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Solar, the “sleeping lion” in Africa

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Wildflowers and a photo voltaic solar power station near Lucainena de las Torres, Andalucia, Spain.

By Manisha Gulati and Louise Scholtz

With the vast majority of its population still energy poor, Africa is uniquely placed to leapfrog fossil fuel dependence and exploit its abundant natural resources in the form of sunlight, hydropower and wind.

A REN21 status report on the SADC region, released at the recent South African International Renewable Energy Conference (SAIREC) in Cape Town, shows that the use of fossil fuels in SADC member states, compared to traditional biomass, is still relatively small. For instance, in Mozambique, fossil fuel accounts for only 9,5 per cent of final energy consumption and 8,8 per cent in Zambia.

But this is due to under-development – and so raises the question as to whether the continent, poised for exponential development, will seize the opportunities provided by technological advances in renewable energy or follow the path of a country like South Africa where 87 per cent of its energy mix comes from fossil fuels, in particular coal.

Currently, renewable energy accounts for only 5 per cent of electricity generation, and of this around 45 per cent is hydro. This indicates there is huge untapped potential for large-scale renewable energy projects as well as off-the-grid systems to lift the rural poor out of energy poverty.

No surprise then that the International Energy Agency projects renewable energy in Africa to increase to 41 per cent of electricity generation by 2040, even while many African governments still seem determined to exploit fossil fuel reserves.

This was the backdrop to a discussion at a SAIREC side event, hosted by WWF and the Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Partnership (REEEP). Moderator Bruce Haase of Speaking Sustainability posed the question: How did the panelists see the road ahead for renewables in Africa and what were the obstacles?

Namibia-based Elijah Sichone, from the Regional Electricity Regulators Association of Southern Africa, endorsed the view that Africa had an abundance of potential renewable energy, but perception and attitudes remained a problem. A typical view was that because developed nations made use of fossil fuels, why should Africa not follow suit?

Other challenges include the lack of political commitment and the difficulty of pushing through policies that lacked detail and plans, often in a climate of political uncertainty for individual ministers. “There is no clear indication as to how renewables are going to be part and parcel of energy mix,” he said. Additional constraints include the lack of enabling regulatory environment and access to resources to support the development of renewable energy.

Gerald Banaga-Baingi from the Ministry of Energy and Mineral Development in Uganda felt Africa had “no choice” when it came to incorporating renewables and said Uganda was keen to promote a clean energy supply and improve distribution, both on and off the grid. Key interventions to support this goal to date has been the unbundling of the electricity system and the provision of public sector funding to support private sector investment. He cited financing, along with a lack of public awareness and negative perceptions, as obstacles.

For instance, “fly-by-night” installations could sometimes do more harm than good. “If one installation breaks down and is not repaired for some time, the whole effort goes to waste.” He described solar as “the sleeping lion” on the African continent.

Gerry Ostheimer, of SE4ALL, said he thought the issue should be framed more broadly. Much focus went into the supply side of energy but more attention needed to be paid to the demand side and what people’s needs really were. “When we hear that 89 per cent of the energy mix is biomass, it is both a challenge and an opportunity.”

One obvious need in rural areas was food. “If an area or town is food insecure, it’s because they are energy insecure,” he said, citing examples where investment in biofuel had boosted food production.

One such was Brazil, once a food importer but now on the verge of becoming the world’s largest exporter due to ethanol investment, and another the USA where the same dynamic had seen corn production increase by 30 per cent.
“The barrier actually is perception and understanding the resources people have,” he said. He also highlighted problems around financing due to a lack of scale.

Laura Williamson, who worked on the REN21 SADC report, stressed the need for accurate data, not only from governments but also more informal sources including market analysis and information from consultancies.

While working on the SADC report, she found that information was not being shared across the region. She noted that the region had a high dependence on hydro, which was problematic due to insecure rainfall. “Currently less than 1 per cent of wind and solar potential is being tapped,” she said. In addition, policy uncertainty tended to put off investors. Speaking to financing challenges, she highlighted the present scale of projects and the need to package small projects to make them attractive for investors.

When Haase asked each of the panelists what their “magic wand” would be for promoting renewable energy in Africa, many themes recurred.

Williamson called for “long-term stable policy set by government”. Ostheimer said there needed to be a regional perspective to create “more robust and resilient systems”. Banaga-Baingi focused on financing, standards and the need for more public awareness in rural areas. Sichone said there was a need for “long-term planning” with clear targets set for investment in renewable energy.

All of the above is pertinent as African governments are poised to make important policy decisions on the energy future for a continent that everyone acknowledges is poised for enormous growth in the next 50 years.

Manisha Gulati is an Energy Economist for WWF South Africa. Louise Scholtz is Manager: Special Projects at WWF South Africa’s Living Planet Unit.

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