Energy from the sun, wind and water: a lot of untapped potential in Africa

Africa has more than enough regenerative sources for its energy future. But European desires are aimed at fossil gas and energy transition metals.

(Image: TeleGeography)

Actually, Europe wanted to move towards renewable energies. But after Russia turned off the gas and the EU Parliament defined natural gas as “green” energy in addition to nuclear energy, European economic and energy politicians also took turns with African governments. Countries like Nigeria, Senegal, Namibia and Mozambique have significant natural gas reserves that they have not even used to cover their own energy needs. Now the Europeans, including Germany, even want to help open up new fields, such as off Senegal.

On top of that, the International Energy Agency (IEA) pointed out at its ministerial meeting in March 2022 that Africa’s soils also host many of the minerals needed for clean energy technologies, such as solar cells, wind generators and electric motors. So Africa is back in focus.

At the same time, Africa itself has a huge energy problem that Europeans can hardly imagine. According to the IEA, around 600 million sub-Saharan Africans have no access to electricity. But without electricity for lighting, cooling or for the supply of schools, infirmaries and small handicraft businesses, other sustainable UN development goals such as education, health or at least modest economic growth can hardly be achieved.

Africa has immense potential for renewable energy sources and actually would not need to develop fossil energy deposits. The continent has 60 percent of the world’s best solar resources, but has just over 1 percent of installed photovoltaic capacity. Africa accounts for less than three percent of the globally installed renewable energies from the sun, wind, geothermal energy and modern bioenergy. But at least hydropower has a very significant share in electricity generation.

According to estimates by the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), 10 terawatts of electricity could be generated from solar energy alone, plus a total of 350 gigawatts from hydropower and 110 gigawatts from wind.

As great as the electricity shortage is, 30 of the 55 countries on the continent already generate more than 70 percent of their small amounts of energy from renewable sources, while only five countries get less than 10 percent from them.

Ethiopia, Mozambique and Zambia generate 80 percent or more of their electricity from hydropower. Almost 100 percent of Ethiopia’s electricity comes from renewable sources. A new dam, the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on the Blue Nile, has been supplying electricity since February 2022, but when it is completed it is expected to alleviate the country’s still severe energy poverty with an additional six gigawatts. However, some of it should also be given to those downstream on the Nile, in order to dampen the political conflicts over Nile water with Sudan and Egypt.

Although the chimneys of coal-fired power plants still smoke in Mozambique, around 80 percent of the electricity now comes from renewable sources, almost exclusively from hydropower. The Cahora Bassa dam on the lower reaches of the Zambezi is a major contributor to this with two gigawatts. But it is far from enough, because only 34 percent of the population have a reliable power connection at all.

Kenya relies on geothermal energy and already generates 32 percent of its electricity with it. At 57 percent, however, hydropower still plays the larger role. In the villages of this East African country in particular, you can see small solar panels on the house walls blinking in the sun more and more often, but so far they have not contributed more than one percent to the electricity mix.

In its energy outlook for Africa, the IEA points to the enormous efforts that are needed to supply the continent with sustainable energy. Because time is pressing. In 2050, almost 2.5 billion people are expected to live in Africa, 80 percent of them south of the Sahara.

In order to make the future energy-efficient for all these people, 90 million African households would actually have to be connected to electricity every year by 2030. So far, only Ghana, Kenya and Rwanda are well on the way to achieving this goal. New coal-fired power plants are unlikely to be built since China announced that it would end support for coal-fired power plants abroad.

It will probably not be possible to lay the power cables across the board in rural areas in a short time. Here the IEA proposes what is already spreading more and more of its own accord in many villages: solar panels, the electricity from which supplies households, craft businesses, schools and health centers via mini-networks. This should also make sense in view of the more frequent, climate-related weather extremes from which people in Africa suffer disproportionately. Because when it is very hot and there is heavy rainfall, the large national power distribution systems can collapse.

According to calculations by the IEA, investments of 25 billion US dollars per year will be necessary up to 2030 for large and small power grids, for solar and wind power plants, as well as for decentralized rural energy systems. That’s actually not a lot, representing just 1 percent of global energy investment and costing no more than building a single large land-based LNG terminal.

To enable a better balance between energy-rich and energy-poor countries, the African Union (AU) launched the African Single Market for Electricity (AfSEM) in June 2021. It is now the world’s largest continent-wide energy trading system, linking all 55 member states of the AU. Incidentally, the EU Commission was also involved in drawing up the plan.


One thought on “Energy from the sun, wind and water: a lot of untapped potential in Africa

  1. We African cannot and will not trust studies sponsored by the EU without second opinion by African independent experts.


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