Africa’s Renewable Energy Potential

An energy deficit has effectively stunted Africa’s development, with an estimated 70 percent of people in sub-Saharan Africans without reliable access to electricity. In Gabon and Nigeria for example, manufacturing struggles as electricity remain costly and inconsistent. According to the African Development Bank (AfDB), manufacturers in sub-Saharan Africa experience an average of 56 days of shutdown time per year due to power outages.

Fossil fuel-based power generation is the most expensive form of energy globally, yet it is the largest source of electricity generation in Africa. This is the least of concern for a continent simply trying to boost its total power capacity from the current 147 GW, according to the African Development Bank, which is equivalent to the total capacity installed in Belgium, and what China installs every one to two years.

According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), sub-Saharan Africa will require more than $30 billion in investment to achieve universal electricity by 2030. Rural sub-Saharan Africa will require the vast amount of the funds, with more than 85 percent of those living in rural areas lacking access to reliable electricity.

An emerging concern for carbon emissions and sustainable development has created an opportunity for renewable energy on the continent. Recognizing the opportunity and challenges, regional bodies, including the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), have developed rural renewable energy development agendas. ECOWAS member countries have established the Center for Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency (ECREEE), forming strategic development pacts with several international organizations that includes the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) and the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO). ECOWAS members target nearly 20 percent for the renewable makeup of energy by 2030, which include off-grid electricity serving 25 percent of the rural population. The Southern African Development Community (SADC) and the East African Community (EAC) recently agreed to create similar regional renewable energy programs.

Here’s a look at the current renewable landscape in sub-Saharan Africa


Hydropower provides great opportunities across the entire sub-Saharan African region. The Grand Renaissance Dam in Ethiopia is expected to deliver up to 6,000MW to the country, with neighboring Djibouti and Somalia inquiring about the potential of importing such energy. But a recent spat between Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan stresses the challenges in sharing water resources, especially those pertaining to hydropower potential. Studies also indicate that Ethiopia’s growth in hydropower may not necessarily mean cheaper electricity for its neighbors. Somalia already pays $1.00/kwh to specific providers of cross-border energy.Hydro-projects also can be very costly. To combat the costs and even greater logistical and political challenges, the United Nations announced plans to expand the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), which has generally benefited hydropower projects, by establishing regional centers in Togo and Uganda. This mechanism should help West Africa realize a greater percentage of its hydro-potential, as East and Southern Africa have outperformed other regions to date. Guinea has already announced plans to the dam the River Niger upstream of river’s inner delta. Mali wants a part of the project as the dam will likely affect the country’s water resources. The Democratic Republic of Congo’s (DRC) plans for a large hydro-project on the Congo River will also likely match the attention given to Ethiopia’s Renaissance Dam.


Biofuel energy production remains limited, despite the fact that the sector grew to an estimated 300 million liters in 2012. In Zambia, Tanzania and Cote d’Ivoire, investors are using jatropha (a drought-resistant genus of flowering plants) in the development of a biodiesel plant. In Mozambique, NDZiLO’s ethanol plant, in partnership with CleanStar Ventures and Novozymes, provides ethanol to rural populations who have long-depended on charcoal (which has tripled in price in the last three years). In Zimbabwe, a community-based biogas plant is being constructed in Harare to convert organic waste to energy. Other African countries, including Kenya, plan to install similar plants. Crest Global Green Energy continues to make noise with biofuel production in Mali, Guinea and Senegal. Whilst land concessions continue to raise concerns, better land policies and improved mixed farming for food and energy should silence critics.


Sub-Saharan African wind production is booming, with East Africa seeing a major bump in wind energy generation. Wind energy commitments in Kenya skyrocketed from zero in 2011 to $1.1 billion in 2012, underscored by the Lake Turkana Wind power project which will provide 300 MW to the Kenya electrical grid. A 150 MW wind farm in northern Senegal and a 52 MW wind farm in Ethiopia signify the growing interest in wind in Africa’s poorer countries. According to the World Bank, areas with promising wind potential include north of 34%, 6% and 5% of the households in Ethiopia, Ghana, and Kenya respectively.Due to wind speeds, the greatest potential for wind power exists in West Africa. A few wind projects of 30 to 50MW in Senegal is just the start. Wind projects in Cape Verde, according to energy officials, could help the country escape its dependence on fuel imports.


Senegal pledged to meet more than 30 percent of its rural energy requirement through solar power. Mozambique and Zimbabwe among those following Senegal’s lead to combat their energy deficit. According to Mozambique’s Energy Ministry, more than $15 million has been invested in solar power. From this investment total, $13 million came solely from Fundo de Energia, which is under the auspices of the Mozambique Ministry of Energy. In rural Rwanda, mini-solar projects provide energy access to local schools and farmers, who would otherwise be without power. Strengthening legislation across sub-Saharan Africa for managing solar energy off-grid could massively boost projects in this sector.


Geothermal energy continues to emerge as a potential hidden gem in the sub-Saharan African electricity grid. Recent projects in Ethiopia, Rwanda, Ghana and Nigeria speak to the potential and rising interest as geothermal opportunities are also related to the emerging gas and oil discoveries. The recent $4 billion geothermal plant project in Ethiopia could set the standard for projects in the region. Still, this source of energy may present the greatest challenges as exploratory costs are very high for foreign investors while many governments are still developing the knowledge capacity for the sector. According to Burkina Faso Minister of Mines and Energy, Lamoussa Salif Kaboré, the country possesses geothermal potential but little research has been conducted to verify this assertion. Yet it is a common assertion from many ministers in mining, especially oil & gas, countries. The $66 million Geothermal Risk Mitigation Facility for East Africa established by the African Union, the European Union-Africa Infrastructure Trust Fund and the German Ministry for Economic Cooperation, support surface studies and exploration drilling. Such risk management capital and support could bid well for the geothermal sector in the near future, potentially changing assertions of hope into reality.


Coal and gas power plants will continue to grab headlines in Africa. New gas discoveries in Tanzania and Mozambique, as well as oil booms in Angola and Ghana, should not overshadow Africa’s enthusiastic efforts to develop renewable energy.Rural populations could benefit greatly from such efforts. One local living outside Rwanda’s capital Kigali, best summarized the opportunity and return: “Investors are not talking renewable energy like oil and gas, but renewable has benefited me at this stage.” The solar panels providing energy to a local school spoke greater volumes than his words.

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