Across Africa, several nations are moving aggressively to develop their solar and wind capacity. The momentum has some experts wondering whether large parts of the continent can vault into a clean future, bypassing some of the environmentally destructive practices that have plagued other countries such as China and Europe.
In a report, Koffi Annan said “African nations do not have to lock into developing high-carbon old technologies,” adding that we can expand our power generation and achieve universal access to energy by leapfrogging into new technologies that are transforming energy systems across the world.”
Africa’s population is booming faster than anywhere in the world: it is expected to almost quadruple by 2100. More than half of the 1.2 billion people living there today lack electricity, but may get it soon. If much of that power were to come from coal, oil and natural gas, it could kill international efforts to slow the pace of global warming. But a greener path is possible because many African nations are just starting to build up much of their energy infrastructure and have not yet committed to dirtier technology.
Several factors are fuelling the push for renewables in Africa. More than one-third of the continent’s nations get the bulk of their power from hydroelectric plants, and droughts in the past few years have made that supply unreliable. Countries that rely primarily on fossil fuels have been troubled by price volatility and increasing regulations. At the same time, the cost of renewable technology has been dropping dramatically. And researchers are finding that there is more potential solar and wind power on the continent than previously thoughtÔÇöas much as 3,700 times the current total consumption of electricity.
Forward-looking companies are investing in solar and wind farms. And governments are teaming up with international-development agencies to make the arena more attractive to private firms.
Still, green ambitions in Africa are higher now than ever before. Power outages are a common problem in the SADC region. In Zambia, the source of the country’s energy woes is the worst drought in southern Africa in 35 years. The nation gets nearly 100% of its electricity from hydropower, mostly from three large dams, where water levels have plummeted. Nearby Zimbabwe, South Africa and Botswana have also had to curtail electricity production. And water shortages might get worse.
Projections suggest that the warming climate could reduce rainfall in southern Africa even further in the second half of the twenty-first century.
Renewable energy could help to fill the gap, because wind and solar projects can be built much more quickly than hydropower, nuclear or fossil-fuel plants.
One of the big barriers to a clean-energy future in Africa is that the continent lacks robust electricity grids and transmission lines to move large amounts of power within countries and across regions.
But that gap also provides some opportunities. Without a lot of existing infrastructure and entrenched interests, countries there might be able to scale up renewable projects and manage electricity more nimbly than developed nations.
In the semi-arid Karoo region of South Africa, a constellation of bright white wind turbines rises 150 metres above the rolling grassland. Mainstream Renewable Power brought this project online in July, 17 months after starting construction. The 35 turbines add 80 megawatts to South Africa’s supply, enough to power about 70,000 homes there.
The Noupoort Wind Farm is just one of about 100 wind and solar projects that South Africa has developed in the past 4 years, as prices fell below that of coal and construction lagged on two new massive coal plants. South Africa is primed to move quickly to expand renewable energy, in part thanks to its investment in data.
Elham Ibrahim, the African Union’s commissioner for infrastructure and energy, advises countries to take steps to reassure private investors. Clear legislation supporting renewable energy is key, she says, along with a track record of enforcing commercial laws.
South Africa is setting a good example. In 2011, it established a transparent process for project bidding called the Renewable Energy Independent Power Producer Procurement Programme (REIPPPP). The programme has generated private investments of more than $14 billion to develop 6,327 megawatts of wind and solar.