While foreign investors drool over Africa’s hydrocarbon reserves, the Dark Continent also has vast reserves of largely untapped renewable energy, from the Magreb’s immense solar potential to Africa’s mighty rivers.
Now at last, African governments can begin to evaluate their countries’ potential, courtesy of the European Commission Joint Research Center, which last month published its remarkable 62-page “Renewable energies in Africa” report.
The report is divided into four sections – solar, wind and biomass energy and “Pico and mini-hydro resource based energy potential.” All make for fascinating reading and provide an element frequently lacking in most writing about Africa – optimism. Dozens of maps and statistical tables provide an extremely detailed breakdown of the issues.
Traditional, “Western” sources of power? “While endowed with a huge diversity of energy sources such as oil, gas, coal, uranium and hydropower, the local infrastructure and use of these commercial energy sources is very limited.”
First, the report notes the disparity between EU and African energy consumption rates, blandly observing, “The available data which were used for this report indicate a wide range both of per capita energy consumption (100 to 2,000 kgoe [kilograms of oil equivalent]/capacity/year) and per capita electricity consumption (50 to 4000 kilowatt hour/capacity/year). Relative to the average of the European Union, this corresponds to up to 35 times less regarding all energy, and up to 100 times less regarding electricity. Even though electrification made considerable progress in the past 10 years, 600 million of Africa’s rural population has no access to electricity at all.”
Noting the modest gains made by African governments up to now, the report observes “the (overall African) electrification rate increased from 35.5 percent in 2002 to 40 percent in 2008.” Most striking was the rising divergence between urban and rural electrification rates, as “the urban electrification rate has reached 66.8 percent in 2008 while the rural electrification rate remained stuck at 22.7 percent in the same year, showing a very small increase from the 2002 figure of 19 percent.” One might note here that this disparity is hardly a recipe for social stability, as urban elites prosper and the countryside lags behind. Furthermore, “99.6 percent of the African population without electricity access is concentrated in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) countries, reflecting the great disparities in the different African regions caused also by the still unbalanced development of the energy production and transport infrastructures in the continent.”
The document is unabashedly green, noting that renewable energy is particularly apt for those 600 million Africans living in rural areas without electricity, as developing modest renewable energy resources such as solar panels for illumination and pumping water would be far less expensive than extending traditional copper-wire national grids into remote hinterlands, noting that “the decentralized feature of these technologies allow an economically viable competition with conventional grid extension.”
The report's editor, Fabio Monforti-Ferrario observed, "We found good wind energy potential in North Africa and good solar energy potential in Sub-Saharan Africa and the Sahara belt." Comparing Africa’s solar energy’s potential to Europe, “there are areas in Africa where solar potential can be considered very interesting, with the same photovoltaic panel ready to produce twice as much electricity in Africa as in Central Europe on average.”
As for the African use of wood and other biomass for cooking and heating the report noted, “While local biomass resources have been traditionally the main energy sources for rural households heat needs, from the 1950s onwards, diesel stand alone systems and grid extension have been the dominant solutions for the electrification of rural areas in Africa.”
The report is hardly a clarion call for energy welfare subsidies however, as it concludes, "Renewable Energy in Africa is a huge opportunity to allow for a better standard of living for a large part of current and future population in Africa. However, it should be pointed out here that much of the knowledge, - including that which is also presented in this report -, should be transferred swiftly to research and technology partners in Africa, in collaboration and cooperation with the wide range of existing research and university infrastructure. Only if much of the research, prototyping, demonstration and large-scale deployment are done by African people, one can accelerate the uptake of renewable energy."
In providing an oversight tool to assist governmental planning however, the European Commission has provided African nations with a far more invaluable service than a seemingly interminable series of high interest loans from international institutions. In any case, resolving the issue of providing reliable and inexpensive energy for Africa’s masses is a pressing issue, as “Africa has the highest birthrate of any continent and also the world’s highest urbanization rates with an average urban growth rate of 4 percent per year.”
The report is an invaluable roadmap to the future for Africa – all that is lacking now is governmental determination to act on the report’s data and foreign partners willing to share money, “research” and “technology.”
By. John C.K. Daly of Oilprice.com