Whereas the shale gas revolution in the USA is based on a large oil and gas industrial ecosystem that is still difficult to replicate elsewhere, many other rapid advances in technology such as those linked to renewable sources of energy require a much smaller technology footprint. They could have a significant impact on Africa.
Hydropower, geothermal, solar and wind have the potential to revolutionise electricity access in Africa in a way not dissimilar to fracking in the USA, but with the same result of empowering the local versus those further away. It is coming to Africa in three forms. The first is through distributed local systems using renewables, mostly solar, wind and geothermal. The second is through the improvement and distributed installation of electricity storage systems such as new types of batteries. The third is through new technologies such as harnessing the energy in ocean currents and waste-to-biomass conversion.
In addition to its large hydro schemes, Ethiopia alone has the potential to generate up to 10 gigawatt (GW) of power from its geothermal resources. And then Power Africa, the initiative started under former US president Barack Obama, already supports 15 geothermal projects with 1 GW potential generation capacity. Different to the fluctuating energy supply from wind and solar, ocean currents and geothermal can probably provide near-stable baseload electricity generation comparable to that provided by hydro, coal, oil, gas and nuclear.Footnote 13
Data on the share of renewables in global energy supply vary between sources. According to Global Trends in Renewable Energy Investment, in 2017, 12% of electricity globally came from clean sources since it does not include large hydroelectric dams.Footnote 14 Other estimates are that renewable electricity transmission is around 22% globally, of which 17% is hydropower, about five or six percent is wind, and one or two percent is solar. The share of fossil energy in the global energy mix (oil, coal and gas) has remained at about 80% for the last two decades.Footnote 15
The IFs Current Path forecast points to a plateauing of fossil fuel use in the 2030s followed by a steady decline after 2040, with non-fossil fuel sources overtaking fossil fuels around mid-century and constituting more than 80% of all supply by 2100. Leaving the huge challenge of the environment and climate change aside for the moment (see Chapter 15), this will be a world where electricity for households will likely be provided by individual supply or decentralised micro or mini-grids that are powered by renewables, not from large-scale coal, nuclear or other plants. According to a recent report,Footnote 16 at least 19,000 mini-grids installed in 134 countries already provide electricity to about 47 million people, most of whom are in rural areas. It will be a world of potential energy abundance at a time when the lack of electricity is generally considered one of the largest constraints on Africa’s development.
In a region with more than 600 million extremely poor people (see Chapter 7 for the associated definitions), electricity is often an unaffordable luxury even where connections exist. The average price for electricity in Africa is about US$0.14 per kilowatt hour (kWh), compared to US$0.04 in South Asia and US$0.07 in East Asia. Some in the industry cite the actual cost of electricity in Africa closer to US$0.20 per kWh, largely due to the high cost of running a backup generator during regular power shortages.Footnote 17
High electricity prices and intermittent supply means that many households in Africa do not even try to access electricity from a central system. Those homes that have an electricity connection often find the supply inconsistent and cost extremely high. Lack of electricity also acts as a strong disincentive to private investment especially in sectors where a dependable supply is crucial such as cold storage in the distribution of food from farm to consumer to minerals beneficiation and manufacturing.Footnote 18 Consider that, in 2018 only about 53% of Africa’s population had access to electricity in contrast to about 85% in South Asia and well over 90% in the World except Africa. The rapid electrification of the African continent would improve both human development and economic prospects. Among its obvious many economic benefits, affordable, reliable electricity eliminates the need to use traditional fuels inside the home for cooking and heating—thereby reducing the potential for respiratory ailments—and also allows children to study longer at night.
Currently Africa generates very little electricity. The continent had about 168 GW of installed capacity in 2018, but more than half of this is concentrated in three countries (South Africa, Egypt and Algeria). Together these countries account for only about 15% of the continent’s total population. China has about 1770 GW of installed capacity—seven times that of Africa—of which 150 GW is solar with plans to add another 23 GW per year until 2023.Footnote 19 At current rates of growth China’s installed solar capacity will shortly equal Africa’s total installed capacity.
However, a number of large hydroelectric schemes are currently being built in Africa. For example, Ethiopia is completing the construction of the US$5 billion Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) on the upper reaches of the Blue Nile close to its border with Sudan. Once completed it will be the third largest hydroelectric facility in the world in terms of installed capacity, capable of generating almost 6.5 GW in peak operating conditions, but threatens livelihoods further downstream in Egypt whose entire population, virtually its survival, is dependent on the waters of the Nile.Footnote 20 Ethiopia’s ambitions are to alleviate its own electricity shortages and to eventually emerge at the hub of a regional distribution network to sell electricity in the larger Horn of Africa.
The potential for hydroelectric power on the Congo River in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is similarly impressive, equivalent to nearly a quarter of the entire installed capacity of Africa. The DRC has long been promising to start construction on Inga 3, the third of a series of hydroelectric dams connected to the Inga Falls at a cost up to US$18 billion. Inga 3 could produce about 11 GW at full capacity and the full series of dams could eventually yield up to 50 GW at full operating capacity, according to the World Bank.Footnote 21
Inga Falls is the world’s largest waterfall by volume, and it is also unique in that the Congo River drops an astonishing 96 meters in less than 15 kilometres along the proposed site of the Grand Inga project. Since the drop is close to the mouth of the river at the Atlantic Ocean, the water volumes are very large. This translates into an incredible power generating capacity compared to most other rivers where such a steep drop is often located much further upstream where water volumes are much lower.
Central Africa’s mining sector is particularly interested in the potential of hydroelectric power given the potential to beneficiate its copper and other minerals. But unlike GERD in Ethiopia that has moved very rapidly from planning to construction, the Grand Inga project has been perpetually held back by uncertainty, poor planning, delays, inefficiencies and corruption. And, despite being a priority for several pan-African organisations, like the African Union Development Agency-New Partnership for Africa’s Development (AUDA-NEPAD), the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and the East African Power Pool, there has been little tangible progress on the project in a country wracked by chronic instability and poor governance.
It’s not as if the need is not there. The DRC is one of the most resource rich countries on earth. It is the leading producer of copper in Africa and contains much of the world’s cobalt. In addition to that it has sizeable gold, diamond and other mineral deposits, including the so-called 3TG’s—cassiterite (tin), wolfram (tungsten) and coltan (tantalum)—that are infamous for being so-called ‘conflict minerals’ since they are generally mined in conflict-affected poor countries. Other resource rich countries such as Zambia also suffer from a debilitating electricity shortage.Footnote 22
Wind and solar generation are already having a transformative effect on wellbeing in parts of the continent. Kenya recently finished construction of the Lake Turkana Wind Project, the largest wind project in Africa that is capable of delivering 310 MW (or 17% of Kenya’s installed capacity) to the grid. This is small by international standards, but still is more than the installed capacity of several African countries, including Chad and Liberia.Footnote 23
At the same time, Lake Turkana is emblematic of the governance failures that hamper technological adaptation and economic growth on the continent. The wind farm was completed in 2017, but only connected to the grid the following year since the connecting infrastructure, which was the responsibility of the Kenyan government, was not in place in time. In the interim the Kenyan government had to pay royalties in lieu of electricity sales to the investors.Footnote 24
Already global investments in solar capacity outstrip the combined investments in coal, gas and nuclear plants as renewable energy costs plummet. China’s impact on global solar markets has been well documented. In 2018 the country accounted for about half of total solar capacity globally but uptake has also been rapid elsewhere, including in developing countries. This growth, fuelled by rapidly falling prices has enabled countries like India, Mexico and Chile to offer electricity from photovoltaic solar (US$0.03 per kWh) at a fraction of the cost of electricity in Africa.
We are only at the start of the solar energy revolution. According to the UN, the greater Sahara, which is one of the most uninhabitable places on the planet, has solar potential equivalent to approximately 13.9 billion kWh/year. In 2016 global electricity consumption was 0.02 billion kWh/year.Footnote 25 Only a revolution in electricity storage would be able to unlock some of this potential, but the geostrategic incentives are substantial, such as diluting Europe’s increased energy dependence on imported gas from Russia and its own limited solar capacity during its winters. Beyond the need for technological innovation the most important impediment is the lack of stability in North Africa.
Solar energy prices have dropped to less than US$0.05 per kWh in some regions, and levelised costs that can now compete with those of electricity generated by burning fossil fuels. In Africa, solar energy could significantly change the overall picture of electricity supply although, without a breakthrough in storage capacity, off-grid renewables do not provide enough thermal energy for cooking and space heating or cooling. Electrifying rural areas would make many other development goals easier to achieve: access to clean water, independent economic activity, the use of electric appliances in general, or access to information via communication technologies.
Once the storage problem has been resolved renewable energy could also fundamentally change the political landscape in many countries, leading to a redistribution of political and economic power as cities become less dependent on central governments. Biomass, biogas and gas from waste from municipal and city dumping sites have large potential in complementing other energy sources.
Off-grid solutions could reach consumers in rural areas without the hefty expense of large coal, oil or gas powered power plants that are linked to the hinterland through massive transmission lines and complex distribution systems. In sub-Saharan Africa roughly 60% of the population live in rural areas. At about 25% the region has by far the lowest rural electrification rate worldwide.
In this context, mini-grids powered by sun and wind that are independent of the larger national grid could provide many opportunities. These technologies can also be deployed much more rapidly than traditional methods of electrification. In fact, in a recent study on the long-term future of KenyaFootnote 26 we saw clear evidence of the impact leapfrogging is having on dramatic increases in electricity access when taking renewables into account.
Globally, Bangladesh and Laos are two countries widely cited as having expanded electricity access particularly rapidly. Bangladesh increased access by about 50 percentage points in roughly 20 years, while Laos increased it by approximately 60 percentage points in 25 years. Kenya has moved from about 20% access in 2010 to about 70% in 2018. In other words, Kenya achieved similar rate increases to Bangladesh and Laos in about a third of the time.
Remotely deployed renewables are already bringing about major shifts in how Africa will provide electricity to its people. What could really prove to be transformative, allowing cooking, space heating and energy-intensive economic activity is a breakthrough in energy storage technology since the sun does not shine every day or for 24 hours and neither does the wind blow constantly. Consequently, electricity grids that include a large component of renewables have to allow for large redundancies (surplus capacity) to be able to meet demand on a guaranteed basis.