Once the right economics and policies are put in place, the pace of advance made by the most successful renewable energy types, including wind power and solar photovoltaic (PV), can be exceptionally fast. Extrapolations of continent-wide trends by the new African Energy Live Data (Live Data) suggest that sustainable technologies can replace polluting (and, increasingly, often costlier) thermal solutions which include the diesel, heavy fuel oil and charcoal that hundreds of millions in sub-Saharan Africa have come to depend on. Across the continent, sun, wind, geothermal activity and other natural resources are being exploited as never before. In the continent’s renewable energy leaders, Morocco and South Africa, investment in concentrated solar power (CSP) has applied a technology that uses the sun to melt salt, providing a solution to the problem of storing energy.

There may be limits to this growth, but in 2016, a year when financiers and developers recorded only five independent power projects (IPPs) reaching financial close across Africa, it is notable that three of these investments were solar and wind, in Senegal and Uganda. US President Donald Trump apart, the global policy community is supporting green energy and climate change mitigation – which means there is a lot of money about that is available to be tapped, providing the business environment is sufficiently welcoming to absorb it.

Electricity trends tracked by Live Data highlight this growth trend, as shown in the graphic on page 19. The green (wind) and yellow (solar) portions of the graph showing installed capacity between 2010 and 2020 have clearly enjoyed a substantial rise, based on data generated from Live data’s listing of almost 4,000 individual generation schemes at the operating, planned, under construction and ‘halted’ phase. Graphs based on analysis of these projects show an especially strong upwards trend in wind power generation in North and Southern Africa, where PV and CSP also feature prominently as a result of so far successful government programmes that have attracted large flows of official (multilateral and bilateral) and private finance.

Morocco and South Africa take lead

Moroccan and South African state utilities Office National de l’Electricité et de l’Eau Potable (ONEE) and Eskom have taken a lead in promoting pumped storage solutions, an application of hydroelectric power (HEP), which is still the largest renewable resource in operation across the continent. HEP is forecast to account for some 65% of installed generation capacity in Central Africa by 2020. HEP now accounts for around 7.5GW of installed capacity in East Africa, but Live Data forecasts this more than doubling by 2020, as mega-projects led by Ethiopia’s Grand Renaissance Dam come on line. The other standout trend in East Africa is the growing role along the volcanic East African Rift Valley of geothermal, which like HEP is a renewable energy source that can supply baseload power.

Renewable energy technologies will be rolled out to more isolated and marginalised communities where more than 600m African citizens still lack access to clean, sustainable energy. Morocco’s 500MW-plus Ouarzazate solar development has started to feed ONEE’s grid; South African wind and solar IPPs are supplying Eskom. The 4GW solar tender being finalised by Algeria’s Sonelgaz and a string of wind and solar schemes planned in northern Nigeria point to a realisation among big hydrocarbons producers that they need to diversify their energy mix.

However, until the eagerly anticipated but still elusive breakthroughs are made in utility-scale batteries and other means of storing energy generated from renewable schemes, on-grid renewables will usually need thermal baseload to support the network. Indeed, the growing recognition that baseload supply will remain essential for the foreseeable future has set some forward-thinking officials in governments that ban the financing of coal and other dirty fuels, including Germany and (for now) the United States, to ponder whether more flexible solutions are needed, especially in countries like Botswana, Mozambique and Zimbabwe that could exploit abundant local resources – and are hardly global-scale polluters. Live Data may show a big rise in renewable generation in the period to 2020 and beyond, but it also shows that coal remains a critical fuel source, as well as charting the progression of the transition fuel, natural gas.

Clean coal projects continue to be launched, notably in countries like Morocco and Senegal that are also renewables enthusiasts. This is despite the massive hurdles to privately financing coal plants in international and local markets, which have held back South Africa’s coal baseload IPP procurement programme and other schemes. The recognition that baseload generation will be critical to support a fast-urbanising continent for decades to come also underpins the more rational arguments for building new nuclear plants in South Africa and a growing number of other states. There may be plenty of reasons not to build these costly potential white elephants, but projections that renewables can replace more controversial fuels are not among them.

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