Nineteenth-century European explorers called Africa the "Dark Continent," because to them it was vast and largely unknown.
Today, Africa may still be dark, but for a different reason: it is chronically short of electricity.
The United Nations has designated 2012 the International Year of Sustainable Energy for All. Its official launch in Africa in mid-February will not “switch on” the continent in a flash — but it can help to jump-start global efforts towards that goal. Attempts have been made before to electrify Africa, with mixed results. But this time can be different.
Innovative investment mechanisms and sharply falling manufacturing and installation costs of renewable energy technologies are essential to unlocking the continent’s potential. In Kenya, new drilling techniques are tapping the country’s geothermal energy resources, adding hundreds of megawatts of generating capacity. Kenya is also about to begin setting up sub-Saharan Africa’s largest wind farm.
In Egypt, investment in renewable energy rose by $800 million, to $1.3 billion, in 2010, owing to the solar thermal project in KomOmbo and a 220-megawatt onshore wind farm in the Gulf of Zayt.
In Morocco, the provision of solar photovoltaic kits to isolated villages has helped to raise access rates to electricity in rural areas from less than 15 per cent in 1990 to more than 97 per cent in 2009. The country has been chosen as the first location to develop a 500 MW concentrated solar plant as part of the Desertec Industrial Initiative.
Instead of waiting for a grid to come to a town or village, renewable energies can be swiftly deployed in remote areas. Distributed generation using renewables can help to reduce the risk of massive power outages and resulting reliance on expensive diesel power, which currently can cost up to 5 per cent of a country’s annual GDP — a problem that affects 30 of the 48 countries in sub-Saharan Africa.
Africa is endowed with vast untapped renewable energy resources that can provide electricity for all at an affordable cost.
The potential of wind power alone is more than 1,000 gigawatts, or more than five times the continent’s current total installed generating capacity.
The potential output of solar energy is 10 times higher, in excess of 10,000 GW, while only 5 per cent of the region’s estimated hydropower resources has so far been exploited.
With Africa having yet to build nearly two-thirds of the additional capacity that it will need in 2030, the continent faces a unique opportunity to benefit from recent advances and cost reductions in renewable power-generation technologies, thereby leapfrogging the energy path taken by industrialised countries.
The story is not limited to electrification. In Ghana, an African Rural Energy Enterprise Development project, supported by the UN Foundation, has helped small entrepreneurs to scale up and supply 50,000 homes with cleaner, more efficient cooking stoves, while generating manufacturing and service jobs and cutting health-damaging emissions in houses. There are similar stories across Africa.
The International Year of Sustainable Energy for All coincides with the year of the Rio+20 Summit, when, marking 20 years since the Earth Summit of 1992 paved the way towards sustainable development.
One cooperative decision that world leaders can take when they meet again in Rio de Janeiro is to reduce or phase out the more than $500 billion of global fossil-fuel subsidies, the benefits of which reach less than one-tenth of the poorest 20 per cent of the world’s population.
It will be a challenge, but a gradual, well-designed, and properly communicated set of policies could accelerate the quest for more sustainable sources of energy.
A good place to start is the public sector: procurement by governments and local authorities can play an important role in shifting economies towards cleaner forms of energy.
Building the banking sector’s capacity and managing exchange rate risk in some African countries would also help to realise Africa’s potential for sustainable energy production.
Many barriers remain, but they are no longer insurmountable. Governments, the private sector, and civil society groups in Africa and beyond should support the UN Secretary-General’s initiative by nurturing the new generation of entrepreneurs and innovators who will bring light to 600 million African citizens whose lives and livelihoods remain benighted.
Mr Adnan Amin is Director-General, International Renewable Energy Agency; Mr Achim Steiner is Executive Director, UN Environment Programme; Dr Kandeh Yumkella is Director-General of the UN Industrial Development Organisation.