Renewables lighting up Africa

Dina Ezzat , Tuesday 11 Jul 2023

A new report reflects on the challenges and opportunities of renewable energy production across the African continent, writes Dina Ezzat 

Africa and the renewable energy


Africa needs to maximise the use of its ample resources of renewable energy to meet the 2050 objective of “lighting up and powering Africa” and of reaching out to close to half the population of the continent who suffer from energy deprivation.


It needs to face up to the increasing environmental hazards facing the continent as a result of continued dependence on fossil fuels and timber.


This was how Amany Al-Tawil, a senior researcher on African affairs, summarised a report recently issued by the cabinet’s Information and Decision Support Centre (IDSC) on energy in Africa.


The editor of the report, entitled “Renewable Energy in Africa,” Al-Tawil said that it is the first in a series that will likely be issued on an annual basis under the title of “African Trends”.


“This is not a report to follow events, but rather to examine key problems and objectives that are shared by the countries of the continent and to propose agendas for action, particularly at the cooperative level and on either the regional or sub-regional tracks,” she commented.


“It comes at a time when the continent, like the rest of the world, is faced with two major questions: one relates to energy production, essential for development, and the other relates to environmental conservation, essential for life.


“These two questions are intertwined, and it is hard to address one away from the other. When we think of expanding the usage of hydroelectric energy, for example, we need to think of increasing levels of drought, parallel increases in population, and the impact of both on water to produce energy on the continent,” she said.


In over 140 pages, complete with charts and graphics, the report reviews the scope of renewable energy prospects in the continent, examines the challenges for the use of these resources, and shares some significant success stories, including in Egypt, Morocco, Kenya, and South Africa. Contributors to the report are experts from several African countries.


The report underlines two main points. The first is that despite its exceptional resources of renewable energy, especially solar and wind, Africa’s overall consumption of renewable energy stands at a very small four per cent of overall world consumption. The second is the limited government investment in the expansion of the use of renewable energy in Africa, assessed at around one per cent of overall GDP across the continent.


“If we take these two figures and also consider the fact that the continent, like the rest of the world, is suffering from global heating, then it is clear why we chose to start our African Trends series with the issue of renewable energy, especially in view of the ability to make a big move forward,” Al-Tawil said.


She added that prompt action on the expansion of renewable energy is essential not just for environmental conservation requirements, underlined as particularly pressing at last year’s UN COP27 Climate Conference in Sharm El-Sheikh, but also because it is just “too harsh and unjust to allow a situation whereby close to half of the population of the continent is living in the dark.”


“If we take into consideration the expanding population of the continent, expected to bypass two billion by 2050, then we will realise that is not just essential for us to move now and not later, but also that for the most part, and despite some success stories, Africa is lagging behind on using renewable energy.”


In 2016, the African Development Bank Group issued a report called “Light Up and Power Africa — A New Deal on Energy for Africa,” which noted that “over 640 million Africans have no access to energy, corresponding to an electricity access rate for African countries at just over 40 per cent, the lowest in the world.”


It added that per capita consumption of energy in Sub-Saharan Africa, excluding South Africa, is 180 kWh, compared to 13,000 kWh per capita in the US and 6,500 kWh in Europe.


It noted that “insufficient energy access manifests itself in hundreds of thousands of deaths annually due to the use of wood-burning stoves for cooking, handicaps the operations of hospitals and emergency services, compromises educational attainment, and drives up the cost of doing business.”


“Light Up Africa” set a clear “aspirational goal” to help the continent achieve universal electricity access by 2025 with a strong focus on encouraging clean and renewable energy.


“It was a very clear alarm bell and a call for action with specific reference to the need to give renewable energy its full potential,” Al-Tawil noted. This was why renewable energy had to be a top agenda issue for “African Trends”.





YPES OF ENERGY: The list of renewable energy in the report includes solar, wind, hydro, geothermal, biomass, and green hydrogen.


According to the report, every country of the 54 on the African continent has an abundance of at least four of these to different degrees. With the exception of hydro-energy, almost every country in Africa has resources of all other types, though these can only be used with different degrees of investment.


Al-Tawil argued that despite the obvious problem of energy sufficiency and the obvious abundance of renewable energy resources, most African governments have fallen short of acting to expand the use of renewable energy. Sometimes this has been due to a lack of attention, but mostly it has been due to a lack of funds for the launch of renewable energy schemes, a lack of technical expertise, or the pressures of political and tribal squabbles. 


“Take, for example, geothermal energy. This is a very complex issue in terms of the funds and expertise required to start schemes to identify hot springs and thermal water wells and to get the water out and start energy production,” Al-Tawil explained.


“Another concern relates to tribal squabbles over the control of land and the complexities of nomadic lives in some of the areas with generous geothermal resources.”


According to the report, producing energy is only one aspect of securing access to electricity for the population of the continent. The other equally crucial aspect is the link between electricity grids and areas of low population density.


The report notes that in many cases, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa, this link is often missed. This is one reason why in some countries the discrepancies are huge in terms of access to electricity between urban and rural areas. In the case of Zimbabwe, for example, access to electricity stands at 83 per cent in urban areas and at only 13 per cent in rural areas.


Overall, the report suggests that this discrepancy is least evident in North Africa, with Egypt and Morocco being prime examples of success. Other countries that are moving fast to breach this gap include Kenya and South Africa.


According to the report, counting on renewable energy, especially solar, wind and geothermal, is essential in managing this discrepancy because when it is too difficult or too costly to expand central electricity grids, which usually use energy from fossil fuels, it is usually a lot more manageable to go for starting smaller and limited-zone renewable energy grids. 


“We are not just talking about providing electricity or approachable healthcare, as we are also talking about sparing deforestation or the accelerated use of fossil fuels that simply worsens the environmental crisis that the continent faces,” Al-Tawil said.


She added that while the overall contribution of Africa to global heating does not go beyond a mere five per cent, accelerated heating also comes with the risk of severe drought and heat waves that harm the continent’s chances of achieving food security and enhances the chances of water squabbles.


The real success story on the use of renewable energy requires an expansion of the use of sub-regional grids that will help neighbouring countries share electricity generated away from traditional methods. 


The report reviews such shared grids throughout Africa. It sheds light both on success stories and also on areas where more cooperation is needed, not just to cover national and sub-regional needs, but also to opt for exports, especially in the case of North Africa that has export opportunities to Europe.


The report also notes that sub-regional cooperation has helped to reduce dependence on natural gas and even hydro-energy, in view of the concern over the reduction of gas resources and the conflicts that may come with the excessive use of hydro-energy in a continent with many conflicts over water resources.


Moving forward on this front, the report says, is not just about finding resources and expertise, but also about placing renewable energy at the top of the economic and environmental agenda and introducing legislation to allow for a bigger role for the private sector, foreign investment, and sub-regional and regional cooperation. It is also about the settlement of political disputes, as in the case of Libya, for example.


Once these requirements are secured, at least partially, a leap forward towards environmentally friendly energy is also secured. The report notes that between 2010 and 2020, Kenya managed to increase its electricity production by 55 per cent, allowing electricity access to increase by close to 70 per cent. 





UCCESS STORIES: Egypt is a success story both in terms of expanding access to electricity and in working to expand the share of renewable energy in overall electricity production, the report notes.


What started as an experimental scheme in the late 1980s and early 1990s is now moving towards securing over 40 per cent of the electricity generated by renewable energy to reach over 40 per cent in a little over 10 years.


Elham Ibrahim, a senior Egyptian expert on renewable energy, is confident that Egypt is on the right track to hit the target on time or even a little earlier. She said that electricity sufficiency and efficiency has been on the agenda since the 1970s with the launch of a special agency to secure electricity access to rural areas.


In the 1980s, the work of this agency was merged into national plans for electricity production through the Egyptian Electricity Transmission Company, with the declared intention of equal access for all.


From the Authority for Electricity Access in Rural Zones, launched in 1976, to the national Hayat Karima (Decent Life) initiative, launched in October 2019, successive Egyptian governments have been working to make up shortcomings in electricity access in rural areas.


Ibrahim said that the previously slow incorporation of renewable energy resources into national electricity plans had been a major factor in expanding the scope of electricity coverage.


Overall, Egypt has come a long way, with some aspects of renewable energy, especially wind energy, allowing the country to secure close to 20 per cent of its electricity generation through renewable resources.


“Egypt is one of the five top African countries in moving forward with the production of renewable energy,” Ibrahim said.


According to a report put out earlier this year by the New and Renewable Energy Agency (NERA), Egypt is on track to secure 40 per cent renewable energy production out of overall electricity production by 2035.


Ibrahim argued that ambitious plans to diversify renewable resources are set to help Egypt with securing this objective. She noted that while Egypt is trying to expand its already successful use of solar and wind energy, it is also looking into newer options like geothermal, biomass, and green hydrogen.


“Obviously, these are areas that require funding and expertise, but the commitment is there,” she said.


The NERA says that it has participated in the research project Geothermal Energy Capacity Building in Egypt, “creating the first wave of Egyptian students and entrepreneurs able to secure jobs and open businesses to harness the under-utilised geothermal resources available in Egypt.”


Building academic staff and laboratories and developing the first graduate diploma in geothermal energy engineering in Egypt based on European standards are two key objectives of the NERA. 


The agency is also working with leading Egyptian universities such as Cairo and Ain Shams universities and with the Egypt Japan University of Technology, along with several European universities and the South Valley Egyptian Petroleum Holding Company.


Biomass energy is also set to make progress. This is currently estimated to contribute only around one per cent of Egypt’s overall energy mix. However, in cooperation with several European partners, especially Germany, the government is working to take this one per cent to double digits in the next two decades.


Last week, the Germany Embassy in Cairo announced the signature of a €54 million debt-swap agreement with the German Development Bank (KfW) on behalf of the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) to finance Egypt’s transition to green energy. This will help the government achieve its goal of producing 42 per cent of electricity from renewable sources by 2030.


By 2035, Egypt is hoping to have secured large investments in green hydrogen projects. Last month, the government adopted a new draft law to facilitate the introduction of these that includes lucrative tax exemptions and facilitated industrial operation templates for investors capable of prompt production.


“It is important to remember that Egypt’s demand for electricity is set to increase, not just to meet the expected increase in population, but also to cover the expanding demands of industry, water desalination, and other purposes,” Ibrahim said.


Energy exports, she added, are also a key objective.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 13 July, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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