African energy: flicking the switch

African nations are beginning to harness the continent’s great unused resources: its sunlight, wind and earth. Following the World Energy Forum held in Dubai, Vision reports on the growing role clean tech will play in Africa’s sustainable future

As the sun sets over Africa each evening, instead of turning on the lights or heating up the oven at the touch of a button, most people put a match to a kerosene lantern or a burning ember to a charcoal stove.

Businesses desperate to be competitive in an increasingly global marketplace despair as bills for energy to fuel and service generators cut their profits. Africa, home to 15 per cent of the world’s population, consumes just three per cent of its energy output, and 587 million people, including close to three-quarters of those living in sub-Saharan Africa, still have no access to electricity via national grids.

But the situation is changing, and could improve even faster if Africa’s 54 countries focus on using renewable and alternative ways to generate power and purify water. That was a key message of the 2012 World Energy Forum held in Dubai in October to plot better ways to boost global development through sustainable energy. In this UN International Year of Sustainable Energy for All, 20 heads of state joined more than 2,000 delegates for the conference, held for the first time outside of the UN headquarters in New York.

Clean energy models

In his opening speech, His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE, and Ruler of Dubai, said the UAE aimed to become a model in moving energy production away from fossil fuels. The UAE is an oil-exporting nation, but is committed to tackling climate change and finding sustainable energy solutions.

In Africa, that ambition cannot be realised too soon. Fewer than one in six people living in the continent’s rural areas are connected to a grid electricity supply. Even in its more developed nations, the situation is similar: 84 per cent of Kenyans, 81 per cent of Ugandans and 65 per cent of Sudanese are off-grid. And chopping down trees to burn as fuel harms the environment more than coal-fired power stations.

Shifting power and water supplies to sustainable and clean sources was “not a luxury” for Africa, Ali Bongo Ondimba, President of Gabon, told delegates. “Easy access to the [electricity] network has a direct and immediate impact on the quality of education – through the advantages provided by new web technologies – and on industry,” he said.

Africa’s greatest sustainable potential could lie not with its abundant fossil-fuel resources, but with renewable and alternative energies, including solar, wind, geothermal and biofuels. On average, the sun shines from clear skies over Africa’s equatorial latitudes for 325 days a year, according to Abdoulaye Yansane of the National Solar Power Research Institute in the US. Strong offshore winds blow along the continent’s western seaboard, and several mountainous landscapes help create powerful funnel effects. There is huge potential for geothermal power production along the Great Rift Valley, which runs from Djibouti to Mozambique, and for biofuel production, even in arid areas, from hardy crops such as jatropha.

Carbon reduction

The World Bank has calculated that sub-Saharan Africa could access more than 170 gigawatts of new power supplies through low-carbon energy, equivalent to six times the electricity the region now generates. It would be expensive, but Massamba Thioye, a senior energy specialist who co-wrote a report on Africa’s renewable-energy sources for the World Bank, points out that carbon credits can cut costs. “The pipeline of similar projects in other regions shows us that they are often economically viable when carbon revenues are added,” he said.

In the deserts of northern Kenya, close to its border with Ethiopia, work has begun on what will become Africa’s largest wind farm. Some 325 turbines will be installed through public and private financing, which will increase Kenya’s power generation by 25 per cent.

An expansion of Kenya’s geothermal production will see its reliance on hydropower, which supplies 60 per cent of electricity, drop to 45 per cent by 2014. Djibouti, Eritrea, Rwanda and Uganda are exploring their geothermal potential. As the climate changes, rainfall to run hydro plants is increasingly unreliable, says Eddy Njoroge, MD of Kenya Electricity Generating Company. Geothermal supplies would provide “a stable, reliable supply of power that is not dependent on the weather”.

Solar power has perhaps the greatest potential. Discussions continue in Africa’s Saharan nations, particularly Algeria and Tunisia, over installing giant farms of photovoltaic or concentrated solar panels that could harness enough sunlight to supply the whole of Europe. Revenues from selling solar energy can be ploughed into social-welfare projects. Innovations in panels, power-storage units and ‘micro-grids’ mean that remote villages can install one solar unit to supply homes and businesses. New technology is available that uses solar energy to pump and purify water by generating power to suck supplies from the ground and then blast them with natural UV radiation that kills germs. Wind power, too, is being used to run boreholes and collect clean water.

Untapped resources

“Using inefficient energy sources continues to keep large sections of [Africa’s] population from the benefits of development,” says Aly Ngouille Ndiaye, Senegal’s Minister of Energy and Mines. The continent’s growth, he adds, depends on addressing the lack of reliable energy supply on a continent endowed with untapped resources.

During the World Energy Forum, a separate African Energy Summit was held, which devoted a significant portion of its time to discussing – and forging –connections, both within Africa and with international research organisations and commercial corporations.

“The world is going through an unprecedented energy transition from fossil-fuel dependence to more sustainable and renewable energy,” Professor Harold Hyun-Suk Oh, the Chairman of the World Energy Forum, said during the conference. “The transition period is going to last decades, if not a century. The challenge is how to find a mix of conventional energy that is safer, cleaner and more sustainable, and renewable energy [that is] more affordable, and so more accessible, to fuel the world’s economic and social development during this transitional period.”