The United Nations Environmental Assembly—the highest UN environmental meeting convened on the continent according to organisers—is underway in Nairobi, with the more than 1,000 high-level delegates, including 160 environmental ministers, tackling the environmental rule of law, poaching, and financing the green economy.
The meeting, that has been heralded as jumpstarting a new era of “global efforts to address environmental sustainability”, comes at a time when Africa has received lots of press lately on its recent big discoveries of oil and gas, with investors gushing that this is the world’s “last frontier” in hydrocarbon discoveries.
But the bigger story in Africa’s energy narrative is that it should be the global centre for green energy…but it is not. Thanks to the expansive Sahara desert, strong winds along its coast, high waterfalls and raging rapids along its many rivers, and geothermal reserves all along the Rift Valley, the continent has the world’s highest reserves of renewable energy resources.
According to the World Energy Council, 18 of the top 35 developing countries ranked highest in renewable energy reserves—even when adjusted for domestic consumption—- are located in Africa.
But the continent has barely tapped into its green potential, and critical power shortages continue to be a regular feature of both urban and rural African life. The World Bank estimates that a staggering 93% of Africa’s economically viable hydropower potential, which makes up a tenth of the world’s total, remains unexploited.
Electric power represents 40-80% of the continent’s infrastructure deficiencies, and the combined power generation capacity of all of sub-Saharan Africa in 2011 was 68 Gigawatts (GW), no more than that of Spain, with South Africa alone accounting for 40GW of this.
Moreover, nearly a quarter of the installed capacity is not operational for various reasons, including aging plants and lack of maintenance. But there have long been plans to exploit the massive resources. Here are four projects, which if actualised, could finally thrust Africa into the green age.
The Grand Renaissance Dam
Ethiopia’s massive hydropower project near its border with Sudan is poised to be the biggest hydropower dam in Africa, and the eighth biggest in the world. As of February 2014, the dam was 30% complete. Ethiopia has long wanted to exploit its huge hydropower potential, thanks to its high rainfall and big mountain ranges. At 6,000MW, the dam will produce three times more power than Ethiopia’s current generation potential, and Ethiopia has signed power distributing agreements with several of its neighbours, already exporting power to Sudan and Djibouti, constructing a transmission line to Kenya and is in discussions with Yemen and South Sudan.
It’s a huge game changer in the region, considering that much of Eastern Africa is chronically energy deficient. But the dam has come under attack by a plethora of critics: engineers who say that it is unnecessarily big, environmentalists who worry about the impact on ecosystems both upstream and downstream, and activists who fear a “water war”—Egypt continues to watch the developments very closely, as the 63 billion cubic metre reservoir that the dam will create could drop water levels of the Nile—a non-negotiatible scenario for Egyptians.
Ethiopia’s Grand Renaissance Dam is already under construction, but an even bigger hydro project, the long-awaited Grand Inga Dam is still a plan on paper. Last year, there was a glimmer of hope when the DRC announced that work would begin in 2015 of building what could be world’s largest hydropower dam, the $80 billion Grand Inga Dam on the Congo River.
Heralded as Africa’s panacea to its electricity woes, Inga’s capacity of 40,000 megawatts is enough to light up half the continent. Despite continued instability in the DRC, the massive potential of Inga means remains a strategic priority for many interested parties—the dam is listed as a “priority project” of the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC), the New Partnership for African Development (NEPAD), the East African Power Pool (EAPP), South African Power Pool (SAPP) and the World Energy Council.
A number of consortia including Sinohydro, the Three Gorges Corporation from China, Actividades de Construcion y Servicios (ACS), Eurofinsa and AEE from Spain and Daewoo-Posco from Korea are currently bidding for selection as developers of the Grand Inga. South Africa is expected to be the principal buyer of Inga’s power, at least in the first few phases of the project, with a May 2013 signing of a co-operation treaty between the two governments to jointly develop the current phase of the project.
Scientists have long proposed a massive solar cell be built in the Sahara; if 0.3% of the Sahara could be covered in solar panels, the energy generated is enough to power the whole of Europe, if 1% is covered, it would power the entire world. Five years ago, Jordanian and German company Desertec was the latest to revive the Saharan dream, unveiling a plan to interconnect a massive grid from the Sahara desert to mainland Europe.
But last year, the company quietly admitted that it would have to restrategise, as funding was proving difficult to secure—the project was to generate 100GW by 2050 at a cost of €400 billion, and doubts multiplied when founding shareholder Siemens pulled out of the venture in November last year. Furthermore, the project’s proposed main market, Europe, was already struggling with excess renewable energy capacity.
But this could turn out to be good news for Africa after all: In a statement, Susanne Nies, Head of Unit for Energy Policy and Generation at industry association Eurelectric, said the export focus has shifted from Europe to Africa—perhaps what should have been considered in the first place: “It would be a big mistake for Africa to neglect its own, indigenous power generation and risk its own security of supply for the sake of satisfying the demand of Europe. Demand in Africa already exceeds supply. ”
Wind power gets little sustained mention in Africa’s media, but the continent’s potential for big wind power generation is the highest in the world. The African Development Bank singles out eight African countries: Somalia, Sudan, Libya, Mauritania, Egypt, Madagascar, Kenya and Chad as having large on-shore wind energy potential.
All these countries have swathes of flat, arid land—the perfect geography for the formation of strong winds. The paper from AfDB underscores that Mauritania’s potential, for example, is about four times its annual energy consumption in tonnes of oil equivalent, while Sudan’s is equivalent to 90% of its annual energy needs. Mozambique, Tanzania, Angola, South Africa and Namibia also have potentially large off-shore wind energy resources in the waters along their long coastlines.
The best wind in Africa is found in the coastal regions of the continent: in the North (Algeria, Egypt, Morocco Tunisia and Mauritania), the East (Djibouti, Eritrea, Seychelles and Somalia), West (Cape Verde) and South (South Africa and Lesotho). However, installed capacity of wind-based electricity in Africa, about 1.1 GW in 2010, does not exceed 0.5% of the global total, and has been highly concentrated with three countries (Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia) holding about 96% of total installed capacity as at end-2011.
But wind power in Africa is likely to experience a huge boost in installed capacity over the next few years, according to AfDB—there is an additional 10.5 GW in the pipeline. South Africa has the largest planned capacity at about 1 GW, Mozambique has a small scale wind farm under construction, a 10MW project at Ponta de Ouro. Similarly, east African projects include two ongoing commercial scale projects in Ethiopia and Tanzania (Ashegoba and Njiapanda wind farms, respectively); and there is the 300MW Lake Turkana wind farm in Kenya, which is among the largest wind energy projects planned in Sub Saharan Africa.