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Is Africa ignoring the huge potential of its renewable energy?

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Sun, 24 Feb 2013 22:45 GMT
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By Ray Obiero

Africa’s wealth is often quantified in terms of the huge potential of its minerals. The Democratic Republic of Congo, for instance, is believed to have trillions of dollars worth of mineral wealth which has often been a source of numerous conflicts in the region.

Another of Africa’s resources is arable land. This too has proved controversial because governments often have to uproot communities in order to lease this land to foreign governments and firms.

But there is another resource that is barely mentioned, though it has the potential to put Africa on the world map as an energy giant. This is renewable energy.

It’s worth noting that the kind of energy polices being implemented across the continent have largely failed to make the continent energy secure. Even African businesses complain at the inefficiency of the power system on the continent.

The statistics on Africa’s energy potential are staggering. According to a UN report, the continent sits on a 14,000 MW potential of geothermal energy. There is a further 1,759 TWh (terra watt hours) of hydro energy.

One of the biggest hindrances to tapping this energy and others like solar power and wind is the contrasts you find on the continent. According to the report, for instance, sub-Saharan Africa generates only about 25 percent of the continent’s electricity despite having 80 percent of the continent’s population.

AFRICA'S UNIQUE POSITION

But perhaps Africa’s largely underdeveloped energy sector could be a blessing in disguise. One needs to only to look keenly at recent opinion about current power generation and distribution models to appreciate that Africa is in a unique position.

For example, most of the population on the continent is not connected to national electric grids. This could be an opportunity for the continent to develop “distributed energy generation” or “micro grids” as they are better known.

Distributed energy generation allows power generation mostly in small generation plants - such as wind turbines - close to or in areas where the energy is needed. This differs from the traditional generation methods where large power plants may be constructed away from populations. This demands the transmission of power over large distances with losses that can be as high as 40 percent in some cases.

While it’s worth appreciating that some of the renewable energy resources such as hydro power plants and geothermal locations are not close to populations, other sources such as solar and wind can be integrated close to populations with ease.

The two systems tend to complement one another. While in a micro grid power is generated, stored and distributed within a small locale, the grid also can be connected to the national grid - but in a way that allows for it to be easily disconnected when need arises.

Micro grids can easily be installed in urban areas and even in the middle of populations. With proper design for instance, a biogas project in Nairobi’s Kibera slum, which uses human waste to generate gas fuel,  could be expanded to include rooftop solar panels and micro turbines with a small control center where excess energy could be sold to the national grid.

This would not only make sure that the population in the area has access to electricity but also a chance to earn extra income from selling to the national grid.

The development of smart ways of energy management has lead to the term “smart grids”. And it’s easier to build smart micro grids than smart centralized grids. The use of micro grids allows for a wider user of generation methods and could spur growth in manufacturing these systems on the continent.

It seems that the current low uptake of renewable energy is covered in one word: incentives. Though the long term benefits of having renewable energy integrated into available energy options are known, governments on the continent have simply not turned to innovative ways to improve uptake of renewable energy.

Many people on the continent view grid-supplied electricity or alternative renewable energy as two separate options, not bearing in mind the fact that the two can coexist and that in the long term having renewable solutions as part of your energy mix is economically smarter.

While the acquisition costs for renewable energy seem prohibitive, most people would be willing to borrow to spend on renewable energy for their homes and businesses if there was a workable way for them to repay the costs.

INCENTIVES NEEDED

This is where governments on the continent can actively encourage a variety of incentives like reversible electric meters, which would enable someone who has solar panels installed on their roof to “sell” any excess power they generate to the national grid. At the end of that financial year if the person has supplied more power than they have drawn from the grid they get a cash rebate that goes to pay for the cost of installation.

Another version of this is via a micro grid, where a community of perhaps 200 to 500 homes comes together and collectively installs renewable energy options as a group, using economies of sale to reduce the costs.

They would then interlink with one another in a network (a local grid) which is smart enough to efficiently transfer power from one member to another to meet demand.

The collective excess power (which could be in the order of megawatts) is then sold to a national grid from a designated interconnection point. The proceeds are shared among the members of the grid depending on their generation capacity.

Governments could go further and offer tax rebates or price cuts for the equipment used in developing a local grid. Grids could be interconnected as well as being linked to the national grid but the key is for them to remain independent.

With such policies it would be possible for people in rural areas to use their resources collectively to get electricity as well as earn an income from their investments. Banks would also be much more willing to lend to such projects because of the obvious financial gain and the fact that risks are minimized.

Further benefits lie in the potential for communities to directly earn carbon credits from such projects which could further enhance the economic potential of such technologies.

COLLECTING DATA

Another front where governments can increase private sector participation is in collecting data on renewable energy. There is very little detailed data on the continent for the potential of wind, solar and other renewable energy resources. Most figures quoted – which are few and far between – are based on estimates rather than studies.

Governments could facilitate collection of renewable energy data the way they facilitate mining and mineral exploration data. For instance, a private company could carry out research on the potential of an area for renewable energy and then have the rights to the findings. The company could then sell this information to other companies wishing to invest in renewable energy. This could be particularly helpful in developing wind farms and solar energy farms.

This could be particularly useful in some areas of the continent that are not particularly productive agricultural land and don’t have any mining potential. Some of the harsh grazing lands on the continent could effectively host wind or solar farms with minimal disruptions to grazing activities. These projects could be encouraged as communal efforts since most of this type of land is communally held.

It’s true to say that legislation on the continent has lagged behind in creating adequate policies to encourage renewable energy adoption and use on the continent. The sad statistics about electricity use on the continent could be overturned within a decade, just the way mobile phones brought a communication revolution on the continent.

 Governments need to make it possible for power utilities to adapt to globally acceptable ways of integrating renewable energy into their load mix. Such policies have seen countries like Italy attain grid parity for solar power,  which means that the price of solar power per watt is now equal to price per watt supplied by the grid.

Ray Obiero is a physics graduate of Kenya’s Egerton University. He has previously worked for Green Earth Energy Solutions in Kenya and is a writer at Kenya’s  Management Magazine on technology and new knowledge issues.

 

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