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Africa is expected to be a driver of global growth in coming decades, but its nature will be different from that predicted when emerging markets boomed and investors saw an escape from stagnant developed economies in apparently untapped markets. A realistic view is that there are likely to be more pockets of prosperity around the continent, and economies such as China will continue to grow, albeit less quickly. But how to plan for the future in a deeply uncertain environment?

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There is consensus on the need to scale up renewables, off-grid, combined-cycle gas and other generation schemes if sub-Saharan Africa is to overcome its gaping electricity supply and access deficits (see Power). Huge investment is required to create transmission backbones and commercially sustainable distribution networks. To achieve these ambitious aims, ever more institutions and initiatives are looking to marry public funds with private investment. But there is another category of stakeholder, which has an essential role to play as offtaker and focal point of the electricity supply industry but whose performance often falls short: national utilities.

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Launched by President Barack Obama in Cape Town one year ago, the US Power Africa initiative has been making bold claims about its early successes in a campaign to boost sub-Saharan Africa’s installed generation capacity by some 10GW and connect some 20m more homes and businesses to the grid by 2020 (AE 258/5). Power Africa claims it will make some $7bn available in financial support and loan guarantees from 12 government agencies, led by the Export-Import Bank of the United States (Ex-Im Bank), Overseas Private Investment Corporation and US Trade and Development Agency (USTDA).

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A significant market is emerging across the continent for renewables-based commercial and industrial (C&I) energy projects. In all but a handful of markets, the talk is of a potential that will soon be measured in gigawatts, rather than the usual dozens (at most) of megawatts of an established business. As Kenya-based Astonfield Solar’s chairman Ameet Shah puts it, the technology is still in its early days – as in some cases is the quality of its delivery to clients – but the C&I industry will reach lift-off even before the ‘transformational’ 24-hour storage becomes the norm.

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The most abundant element on earth, hydrogen, already has industrial uses, but it could do much more to transform the global energy mix as industrialised economies and the global south decarbonise. Judged by the welter of governmental and corporate statements, hydrogen is featuring large in the thoughts of planners and project promoters. These range from Chinese hydrocarbons giant Sinopec’s plans to reallocate some of its Rmb87bn ($13bn) cash pile to projects “all along the hydrogen chain” to Australian junior miner AVZ Minerals’ green lithium mine project at Manono in Democratic Republic of Congo.

DR Congo | South Africa
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As Africa enters the 2020s, issues of climate change and sustainability have gained greater urgency even if not everyone agrees on the way ahead. With desertification and water shortages affecting many regions, Africa has joined the stop-start transition away from a carbon-based economy; the percentage of on- and off-grid renewables is growing in the energy mix, with solar, and to a lesser extent wind, taking a lead, promoted by large public procurement projects and ever more private initiatives.

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It hardly needs saying that a strong South Africa is vital if a more integrated, sustainable and equitable Africa is to emerge. The continent’s second-largest economy (after Nigeria re-evaluated its GDP) is still a magnet for business; big construction projects continue to rise across Johannesburg. Throughout the country, forward-thinking South Africans retain a sense of what is morally right and also a taste for innovation. But there are also many conservative elements and vested interests – starting within the ruling African National Congress (ANC) – that are holding back gains.

South Africa
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Zimbabwe is highly unlikely to eradicate the crony capitalist structures that have favoured the Mugabe clan and other Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (Zanu-PF) grandees any time soon. But the president’s departure could favour a measured transition, building on initiatives to normalise the economy undertaken by regime officials such as Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe (RBZ) governor John Mangudya and Zimbabwe Power Company (ZPC) managing director Noah Fari Gwariro. Even at 92 years old, it seems imprudent to write off President Robert Mugabe, whose ruthless political cunning has seen off international sanctions and domestic challenges.

Zimbabwe
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Initial responses to the UN Conference on Climate Change (COP21)’s 12 December Paris Agreement ranged from the euphoric, declaring a historic deal that could save the world, to the grimly pragmatic. Most participants declared the 13 days of negotiations and months of work that preceded them a success for France and the 197 governments that signed the 12-page pact to cut global greenhouse gas emissions. Running parallel to the global deal, COP21 put Africa at the forefront of an international negotiation, reflecting the continent’s perceived role as essential new driver of global growth and burgeoning flows of financing for renewable energy, improved access and efficiency from commitments confirmed in Paris.

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Much of the news flow ahead of the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) in Glasgow in November has been about which global leaders will turn up and what carbon reduction commitments they will make. Many in Africa are more concerned the least-developed continent will be forced to adopt ill-fitting policy straightjackets and forced to choose between rival superpower-led development models, most notably China’s One Belt, One Road Initiative (BRI) and the US-led Clean Green Initiative (CGI) and Build Back Better for the World (B3W) programmes.

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We all agree: the future is necessarily based on renewable energy and storage solutions, as economies, corporations and communities work to tackle the climate crisis by achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2050. Africa understands the need for this better than most, as vulnerable populations in regions like the Sahel suffer the consequences of global warming on their daily lives and resource distribution.

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The Department of Energy has released the draft Integrated Energy Planning (IEP) report for public consultation “as part of a process to formulate an integrated energy plan, which will outline a recommended energy roadmap for South Africa and guide investment decisions”. A period of public discussion will follow, as different stakeholder groups try to hammer out consensus on a sustainable long-term trajectory for the country (the IEP looks towards 2050). The IEP – with the expected new Integrated Resource Plan – will encompass Eskom’s plans for more coal-fired capacity, and also consolidate the so far successful effort to install major renewables capacity; it should also push forward the debate over new gas and nuclear infrastructure.

South Africa
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There was little surprise when SunEdison filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection on 21 April, given the scale of its fall from grace – from nearly $10bn market capitalisation in mid-2015 to a 99% share price collapse and emergency asset sales less than one year later. The US developer’s crisis poses questions about the future of its substantial portfolio – which includes five projects with combined 371MW capacity in South Africa, awarded in the Renewable Energy Independent Power Producer Procurement (REIPPP) programme’s expanded fourth round – and the health of the wider solar industry.