How Africa’s Huge Renewable Energy Stores could Help Bridge Power Gap

07/12/2011
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Africa as a continent suffers a huge lack of power.  Most people in sub-Saharan Africa have little or no access to affordable, easily-available electricity.  Even a developed country like South Africa is plagued by power cuts.

Yet the continent has a wealth of untapped renewable alternatives, said experts on Africa’s clean energy potential and on current projects there, at the climate change conference, or COP17, in Durban.

Delegates from Madagascar, Kenya and South Africa spoke on renewable energy in Africa at the discussion.

As African members of the audience knew, frequent blackouts are a fact of life in the sub-Saharan region especially.  They are not merely inconvenient. They hobble the manufacturing sector, and ultimately adversely affect national economies.

Unreliability is not the only problem in depending on fossil fuels.  Very few African countries possess fossil fuels. Of Africa’s 54 countries, 42 are net energy importers.

The good news is that the continent has huge stores of renewable energy resources such as hydro, wind, solar and geothermal power.

Chairing the discussion was Héla Cheikhrouhou from the African Development Bank (AfDB), which is expanding its support for member countries in terms of low-carbon growth.

To this end, the AfDB is partnering with donors to channel financing, often in novel ways, towards effective clean energy projects, ranging from small-scale hydro power projects in Madagascar to concentrated solar power in South Africa.

However, tapping these clean energy riches is expensive, commented Cheikhrouhou, who is the Director of the AfDB’s Energy, Environment and Climate Change Department.   

The costs involved are beyond the reach of the public sector in many African countries, she said.

Even so, some impressive clean energy projects are already underway in Africa.

One is a hydro power project in Madagascar, called Sahanivotry.  Malalasoa Randriamifidimanana of Hydelec in that country described the project.  Although it is relatively small-scale, the project is at the same time significant and sets an example for the future.

She described the project as: “The country's first hydro power project in 30 years, and its first clean energy development.”  She said it saved Madagascar more than 44,000 tons of carbon emissions every year.

Sahanivotry's funder support process featured some innovative elements, said Randriamifidimanana.  It included successfully applying to classify the project as a Clean Development Mechanism as well as assistance from AfDB to obtain carbon credits.

Cheikhrouhou added: “Sahanivotry provided valuable experience in how to fund small and medium-scale projects and involve local entrepreneurs.”

Another clean energy source is geothermal power.  Caleb Indiatsi of Kenya's Geothermal Development Company told the audience of the rich geothermal resources along the Great Rift Valley.

“Geothermal is Kenya's most abundant energy resource, and it's indigenous,” he said. “It's the least cost source of power generation for us, it's 95percent available and it isn't affected by bad weather.”

Indiatsi cited the example of the Menengai volcanic area as another geothermal project. Despite being several years from completion, it began generating energy in the early phase.  

While South Africa has a relative abundance of energy compared with the rest of sub-Saharan Africa, it is 80 percent dependent on coal.  However, Ayanda Nakedi, from Eskom, the country’s main energy supplier, said South Africa had a goal of 42 percent renewable sourcing.   

One of the sources would be solar power, she said: “South Africa is blessed with solar radiation.”  She described one of Eskom's flagship renewable activities, the concentrated solar supply at Upington in the  Northern Cape.  The province, she said, “received one of the highest solar radiation levels in the world.”

Nakedi said that Upington could eventually supply energy to up to 400,000homes.  

Eskom's other important renewable project – a wind-powered station on the Western Cape – could supply power to up to 150 000 homes.