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Decarbonising sub-saharan Africa’s energy systems

By Kome Mallam-Obi
02 December 2021   |   3:35 am
Energy access is a key driver of economic growth and development. Industrialisation and anthropogenic activities constantly increase the demand for energy production which in turn has caused the rapid depletion of our conventional energy resources[1].

Energy access is a key driver of economic growth and development. Industrialisation and anthropogenic activities constantly increase the demand for energy production which in turn has caused the rapid depletion of our conventional energy resources[1]. This large demand for fossil fuels and its derivatives comes at a cost that we have come to know as climate change. This has become a worldwide concern as global temperatures continue to rise as a result of this. Unsurprisingly, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) special report, the global average surface temperature was 1.09°C higher between 2011– 2020 than between 1850–1900 [2]. In response to this environmental crisis, the Paris agreement was signed in 2015 with the goal of limiting global average temperature increases to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to restrict them to 1.5°C [3]. While the majority of developed countries race to adopt more sustainable methods of energy production, Africa, a continent already experiencing severe energy poverty, as well as contributing less than 4% of global carbon emissions [4], views carbon-cutting as a model with limited relevance to their present position on improving energy access to drive economic growth.

This opinion of many African countries, although justified, is problematic for 2 distinct reasons. Firstly, Sub-Saharan Africa stands to lose the most from climate change and will most likely bear the brunt of its effects. The IPCC suggests that the temperature increase of the sub-Saharan region is projected to be higher than the global mean temperature increase[2], posing a direct threat to human health, food, and water security, as well as the region’s biodiversity[6]. For instance, the Sahel ecosystem in western to central Africa has already begun to see a decline in tree and shrub density. This decline in Senegal’s tree density, as well as in the richness and composition of tree species in countries such as Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, and Chad, has been attributed to rising temperatures and decreasing precipitation in the region [7]. This is especially concerning given that rural communities that reside in the Sahelian strip rely heavily on the provisioning services of this ecosystem i.e food, wood, medicines, e.t.c.— for survival [12].

Additionally, governments of nations along this strip also rely on these provisioning services to trade. These challenges will likely impede economic development in the region, therefore African economies must be more engaged in the fight to reduce global temperatures to preserve the integrity of the land and conserve its natural ecosystems. Second, due to the region’s abundant natural resources, Sub-Saharan Africa has the potential to become a renewable energy powerhouse. This region is endowed with significant energy resources that vary geographically yet, regrettably, remains mostly untapped [8] [9]. For example, solar resources are abundant throughout this region, and while their potential varies greatly by region, they nevertheless have the potential to lead the rise of renewable energy throughout Sub-Saharan Africa. The region has a solar energy potential of approximately 10 TW [10], but only a small percent of this energy has been harvested via Concentrated Solar Power (CSP), and Solar Photovoltaics (PV) is being utilized presently [11]. Hydropower potential is particularly abundant in this region’s wet, forested southern and central regions [8].

Regrettably, only 10% of the 350 GW of hydropower installed in the region is now being used [9], and due to the system’s inefficiencies and mismanagement, only a small percentage of the energy produced by hydropower plants are used to generate electricity. For example, the Kainji dam in Nigeria has a potential of 960MW, but its antiquated equipment is currently only capable of producing roughly 500MW[13]. Geothermal energy potential is also plentiful in the region, particularly in East Africa’s great rift valley. Around 15GW of geothermal energy potential is accessible, however, only about 60MW is being utilised by Kenya [8]. This energy potential has experienced a rise in recent years and it has grown to become East Africa’s second-largest Renewable Energy Technology (RET), owing to its high energy output when paired with solar photovoltaics [11].

Wind energy can be optimized around the continent’s south, east, and northern shores, generating up to 110GW of energy. Even though this energy potential is not as geographically diversified as the others due to its restricted availability only on the coasts, it can be highly profitable if used in combination with other RETs [9]. The diversity of the geography of this region indicates the potential for developing country-specific renewable energy solutions tailored to each country’s capacity, funding, and demand. This will be incredibly effective at transitioning this region into clean energy, as RETS can be tailored to each country’s individual demands while maximizing the energy potential available in that country.

With these vast renewable energy resources, sub-Saharan Africa should theoretically be able to close the energy access gap and drive economic growth seamlessly. However, despite the tremendous resources, it continues to encounter obstacles to decarbonising its energy systems and transitioning to cleaner energy.

Among the plethora of these challenges, the most critical remains the high initial costs associated with establishing renewable energy systems [14]. These RETs require the installation of specialized equipment to harness the available energy potential as well as power grids to deliver the energy to the consumers. The cost of RETs is already rather expensive, with an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) estimate of onshore wind and solar generation per megawatt-hour to be around $517 and $625-$676 while gas or coal only cost
$80-$110 [15]. Most developed countries would only have to bother with harnessing the energy and transporting it through existing power grids; however, since the sub-Saharan region possesses almost no existing power grids, setting them up to transport energy efficiently will require a much larger financial investment.

Without foreign financing, the majority of African countries struggle to fund such an investment in their present economies. Therefore, to attract investments from financial institutions both in and out of the region, African governments must ensure that they provide an enabling environment conducive for investment.

These regulations and policies must be comprehensive enough to cover all aspects of RET configuration, including the fiscal regime, taxation, imports, exports, pricing, expertise, and maintenance [16]. A good example of this was reported by the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (UNESCWA), the report highlighted how countries such as Morocco which have developed thorough regulatory frameworks and policies to create an enabling legal and financial environment for the development of renewable energy projects have experienced an increase in investment within the sector [17]. These investments have allowed Morocco to embark on large-scale renewable energy projects such as the Moroccan Solar Plan (Noor) and the Moroccan Integrated Wind Program, which collectively will generate more than 10,000 MW of electricity when completed [17].

The possibility of decarbonising sub-Saharan Africa’s energy systems promises many benefits for the region. One of which specifically is the potential of renewable energy systems to close the gap and improve energy access, which in turn will promote regional economic growth.

Therefore, it is expedient that African governments prioritise transitioning to renewable energy.

Mallam-Obi is a climate reform advocate and freelance writer from Lagos.