Focus: Green technologies and policies

Energy in Africa

Jan. 25, 2017

Three players have emerged at opposite ends of the continent to lead the march towards solar efficiency: Morocco, Rwanda, and South Africa.

The reason is simple: while populations in much of the world are stabilizing if not shrinking—from Colombia and Iran to Britain, the US, and China—in Africa they are holding firm at nearly twice the global average and more than double the “replacement rate" of 2.1 children per woman. Of all the global gains in population over the rest of the 21st century, the vast majority will occur in Africa.

An example: even if Ethiopia's birthrate continues to fall at precipitous rates (from seven children per woman in the 1990s to 4.1 in 2015 and 1.3 by 2050), its population will still balloon from 100 million today to 243m by 2100. Compare that to the 18m people it had in 1950—a figure that already terrified public healthcare watchdogs at the time. While 32% of the world's population in 1950 was born into a rich country, only 18% are expected to have that privilege by 2100. Dickens and Marx will be turning in their graves, Spencer stuck with a scowl.

It is one thing to clothe and feed this many people, and quite another to provide them with clean running water, adequate housing, and electricity. As it stands, only one in three Africans has access to electricity. Meeting the continent's demand for food and shelter alone is a colossal task; making sure they have energy—especially the clean, renewable kind—seems altogether Sisyphean.

Harnessing the rational, channeling the real

Luckily, weather, technology, and grit are on Africa's side. In late 2015, the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) released a report predicting that renewables in Africa will quadruple to 22% of all energy consumption on the continent by 2023. And McKinsey predicts that 25% of African energy will come from renewables by 2040. After all, the continent is incredibly rich in hydro and geothermal power—not to mention solar, the most promising source on a continent that enjoys 325 sunny days per year.

However, of the 350GW to be gained from hydropower, half are expected to go to the Democratic Republic of the Congo. And of the predicted 15GW from geothermal sources, roughly 80% will go to Ethiopia and Kenya, the continent's two most volcanic countries. Thus the burden of meeting Africa's extraordinary energy challenges will fall upon solar and wind. Of the additional 10TW of energy that McKinsey predicts Africa can produce by 2040, including fossil fuels, nearly eight will (have to) come from solar.

So far, three players have emerged at opposite ends of the continent to lead the march towards solar efficiency: Morocco, Rwanda, and South Africa. In the former, King Mohammad VI has publicly hitched his wagon to achieving 52% of the renewable energy by 2030, mainly through solar, wind, and hydraulic dams. With 14% of all energy to come from solar, the country unveiled phase one of the Noor 1 solar power station in January 2016, a USD9 billion project in Ouarzazate, a town in the far south of the country on the edge of the Saharan desert, pictured above.

This first phase alone is expected to provide 160MW of the project's total planned 580MW in expanded capacity—enough to power the homes of 650,000 people from dawn until three hours past sundown once the second phase, Noor II, is completed. By the time the entire project is finished in 2018, it will cover an area larger than the country's capital (Rabat) and is slated to provide 1.1 million with energy.

The scheme, however, is about far more than servicing desert-dwelling Bedouins. If its architects' vision proves correct, Morocco will soon be exporting solar energy northward to Europe and eastward across the MENA region. Hence Ouarzazate's vast and variegated financial backing; USD1 billion from the German investment bank KfW, USD596 million from the European Investment Bank, and USD400 million from the World Bank, to name but three. Since Morocco currently imports 97% of its energy, this would prove a momentous change of fate for the largely fossil fuel-deprived kingdom.

A thousand hills, a thousand promises

Some 8,000km south, in the green hills 60km east of the Rwandan capital of Kigali, 28,360 solar panels sit in quiet rows above the wild grass. This 8.5MW project is remarkable for more than one reason. In a country where only 18% of inhabitants had any access to electricity in 2012, the country's first solar farm will bring energy to more than 15,000 rural homes and increase the entire country's energy capacity by 6%. So desperate is the government to increase capacity—in 2013 the entire country was producing only 110MW—it is not wasting a single minute. Remarkably, the USD23.7 million project went from contract to construction and connecting people's homes in less than a year.

With panels built in China and converters and transformers imported from Germany, the solar field was backed by Barack Obama's Power Africa initiative, and was ultimately the result of a four-way partnership between the Rwandan government, the Israeli firm Gigawatt Global, the Norwegian Investment Fund for Developing Countries (Norfund), and a Norwegian firm specializing in photovoltaic systems, Scatec Solar. Sending power to a substation 9km away, it is monitored remotely from Oslo.

A country criticized for its dictatorial tendencies but praised for its clever, committed, and corruption-free administration, Rwanda is an ideal place for implementing bold energy solutions. And while solar ought not to be seen as an energy or economic panacea, it is more than a step in the right direction. As the president of Gigawatt Global, Yosef Abramowitz, explained to an American delegation at the plant's inauguration, “We have decoupled GDP growth from emissions growth." While this may be true in countries as poor and off-the-grid as Rwanda (per capita GDP is USD700 and only 18% have access to electricity), what is the outlook for larger and more industrial—however equally innovative—giants such as South Africa?

Out of the Cape and onto the grid

At present, only 4% of South Africa's 43,000MW-capacity comes from renewables, a figure the government aims to triple by 2020. After all, the country is awash in renewable energy sources: its sunniest regions receive twice the annual solar radiation as all of Northern Europe, and the wind-battered Western Cape is a potential goldmine, should the government learn to harness its power. Yet transferring this energy 500 miles to Johannesburg, where it's most needed, is another affair. Hence the budding partnership between the state power company, Eskom Holdings SOC Ltd., and a variety of private players intent on upgrading the national grid.

In the past year alone, Eskom has spent USD180 million stringing hundreds of miles of high-voltage power lines to over 40 private wind and solar plants across the country. And the plan is to incorporate much more than the added capacity from private wind farms and solar plants; Eskom is also working around the clock with private actors to upgrade the national grid to the point where it's plugged into individual home power-generation systems. Individuals whose personal solar panels produce more than they consume will be able to sell their excess energy back to the grid. Failure to incorporate these people into the grid, some warn, will push them off it altogether.

Altogether, more than 79 licensed wind and solar projects have broken ground here in recent years, or USD16.8 billion in investment. Even big coal is catching on. Exxaro, which last year dug 39m tons of coal out of the earth, is investing USD300 million in a wind farm in the Eastern Cape. Meanwhile, the city of Cape Town is partnering with Germany to create the South African Renewable Energy Technology Centre to train 250 technicians a year to run the country's renewable energy systems. Though the South African energy landscape is still dominated by fossil fuels, dwindling renewables prices and systemic advances in sustainable grid-connectivity are making solar and wind not only more likely, but more profitable and thus probable by the day.

From Rabat to Kigali and Cape Town, governments are taking a series of bold and necessary measures with partners from around the world to ensure that the Africans who inherit the earth in the 21st century have brighter future than their predecessors. To guarantee that these are lasting, systemic achievements and not just flicker in a darker century than the last, each partner will need all the help it can get.