Africa's Renewable Energy Potential

Academics tell us about ample solar, wind, hydro and biomass resources that, properly harnessed, could change the energy picture in Africa. Environmentalists talk about deforestation, unsustainable use of charcoal in cities and the risks associated with biofuel production. Social entrepreneurs speak of replacing kerosene with pico-solar systems. Carbon traders highlight opportunities for wind parks on growing power grids. Community activists want programmes to widen energy access with hydro, solar, wind and co-generation electricity. Climate changers talk mitigation and adaptation strategies and politicians make sweeping statements about new investment programmes.

Though the pundits are each ‘right’ in their particular prescriptions, in the noise of the discussions we end up blind to the ‘big picture’. Yes, given the proper stimuli, renewables can and will take off in Sub-Saharan Africa. Appetite and resources are clearly there.

Unfortunately, renewables are not making fast enough progress in Africa. Electricity sectors still rely primarily on petroleum, coal and large hydro. Rural areas have poor electricity access and remain overly reliant on biomass sourced from dwindling forests. Policies are murky, technical capacity is low and, where there is cash, finance terms are absurd. While power companies in Africa are starved for electricity and struggling to supply growing demand, in most countries renewables are not filling the gap fast enough and renewable energy companies are frustrated.

As is still the case in many developed countries, renewables in Africa must overcome significant financial, political and social barriers. Primary among these are a low level of understanding among all stakeholders, inertia and lack of lack of transparency from governments and lack of investment finance across the board. Despite hundreds of small ‘projects’ by committed groups, overall policy and industry infrastructure remains incomplete in most countries.

This is speaking about Africa, but in the concluding comments I feel there are many parallels to the situation in the UK.  Govt apparent swings in policy, a lack of understanding and a a difficult (but improving) situation with funding.  The real odd thing is the apparent lack of urgency, given without question the scientific guidance on the fate of our environment and the practical reality that we have been experiencing these past few years - as true in Africa as the UK as anywhere on our planet.