Green revolution: the solution to African energy poverty?

Southern Africa can lead the world in renewable energy – if it can overcome its obstacles.

Kudzai Chimhangwa
10 September 2020, 9.32am
Image: Lollie-Pop, CC by 2.0

Imagine living in a world without illumination, where the onset of dusk means total darkness and an end to all meaningful activity. A world where children have to wake up in the dark and early hours of the morning to look for firewood, while the slightly older ones have to go out with buckets to fetch water at a river several miles away. Lately, in urban areas, water cuts force people to form long queues at local boreholes dug by well-wishers. This may sound like something out of the stone age, but these are lived realities in most African countries. Africa’s energy deficits strengthen poverty and the most affected are girls, women and people in rural areas.

Without any access to clean energy sources, a substantial number of the continent’s population is forced to use biomass energy in the form of charcoal and firewood. Unprecedented levels of deforestation paint a grim picture for the African natural environment. However, the advent of renewable energy is a promising alternative and environmentally sustainable energy source. The buck lies squarely with Southern African Development Community (SADC) governments to provide impetus for swift renewable energy rollout, through practical policy interventions and the creation of enabling investment climates.

A regional overview

South Africa, through Eskom Holdings, remains the biggest power supplier to a number of countries in the SADC region. Most SADC states rely on Eskom Holdings to supply a substantial proportion of their baseload needs.

Of concern is the fact that Eskom Holdings has lately fallen into dire operational and financial challenges resulting in load shedding within South Africa itself. Much like other utilities across the region, an aging fleet of power plants has led to this energy deficit.

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However, the private sector is increasingly taking the lead in advancing renewable energy projects. FirstRand Bank recently secured a USD 225 million loan from the International Finance Corporation. The loan aims to enable financing and technical support for nascent and established energy efficient projects.

Some member states have already started embarking on renewable energy projects in response to this situation.

In June, China’s Dongfang Electric Corporation penned a supply contract with an Egyptian consortium for the construction of the Julius Nyerere hydropower plant along the Rufiji river basin.

Upon commissioning in the year 2022, the project is expected to have capacity to produce 2115 MW of electricity which will feed into the national power grids of Tanzania, Kenya, Zambia and Uganda.

Zimbabwe is enduring a renewed electricity crisis as the national grid cannot generate sufficient power to cater for demand, let alone pay for imports due to acute foreign currency shortages. Since 1980, no investments have been made in establishing new power stations.

Despite these setbacks, the country is endowed with renewable energy resources in the form of solar energy and hydropower which have the potential to guarantee energy security.

In April this year, Harare announced a plan to secure 2.1 GW of capacity through renewable energy projects by 2030. The government has also decided to open the market to Independent Power Producers (IPPs), primarily for small hydro plants and solar technologies. But policy mentions without practical and transparent implementation remain Zimbabwe’s biggest challenge.

The Zambian gem

Endowed with an abundance of minerals needed for the construction of various renewable energies, Zambia bears potential to lead the green revolution in Africa and globally. The country is the leading global producer of cobalt and copper. Cobalt provides storage capacity for renewable energies, electric vehicles and power grid stabilization while copper remains the best electricity conductor. Demand for both minerals is set to rise as governments and businesses around the world go green and aim to cut carbon emissions.

However, Zambia’s potential energy market seems hampered by the position of power utility, ZESCO. Lack of clarity on whether ZESCO is keen to relinquish control for IPPs to produce power or sell it is not an encouraging sign.

Experts posit that large-scale cobalt and copper production will come to a grinding halt, if the fiscal and regulatory environment is not improved.

A World Bank Group report published in May this year revealed over 3 billion tons of minerals and metals will be needed to deploy wind, solar and geothermal power, as well as energy storage.

The report says that any changes in clean energy technology deployments could have significant consequences on demand for certain minerals. It is an opportunity the country needs to seize but then strong Chinese presence probably influences decisions. That’s a story for another day.

With an average of 2000 to 3000 hours of sunshine annually, Zambia is shifting more attention to solar power.

The first solar project was completed in 2013, where a solar mini-grid in Luapula province supplies electricity to 480 homes, a harbor, a school and a clinic. Two more similar grids were set up in Central and Laupuala provinces in 2016.

Interestingly, this move towards solar has had downstream effects by providing business opportunities for small solar-related industries. These local firms provide appliances such as water pumps, mobile phone chargers, lights and radios among other things for farms, households and other businesses.

The republics of Botswana and Namibia are finalizing an agreement for the construction of solar plants to produce 5000 MW of electric power. The deal had gained traction in March this year before COVID-19 broke out and disrupted business. Besides relieving pressure on Eskom, this project will expand power generation in the SADC region.

Angola is banking on rolling out a series of large hydro schemes and conversion of all diesel power plants to gas by 2023. The transmission and distribution infrastructure still needs more attention, though. Moreover, the Covid-induced fall in oil prices, which lead export earnings for Luanda, could prove immensely challenging to financing such renewable energy programs.

Groping in the dark

Energy expert Todd Moss contends that players investing in energy for income generation mistakenly place focus on micro industries rather than running factories, cold storage facilities and related macro scale enterprises.

Such small-scale efforts, prevalent in Africa, only work to alleviate the worst effects of extreme poverty rather than generating the conditions for economic revolution and growth.

Modern energy systems that can deliver cheap and reliable power at a large scale can lead to higher standards of living, increases in productivity, and economic growth.

“Declaring success with light bulbs and a solar-powered sewing machine is selling billions of people short,” argues Moss.

Southern Africa’s extremely centralized energy systems often benefit the rich at the expense of the poor. These energy distribution systems are usually inept, outdated and incapable of catering for national needs.

Poor supply of inexpensive electricity, including renewable energy, is a barricade to economic growth, job creation and poverty reduction.

Mounting evidence points to an incontrovertible reality that renewable energy will play an enormous role in Africa’s future energy plans, especially as technologies advance.

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