The development of rich renewable energy sources in Africa could bring economic, social and environmental benefits. Historically, oil, natural gas, and coal have been the economic pillars of Europe, the United States, Japan, and other members of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). These energy sources, especially oil, have enabled them to achieve and maintain their current level of development and lifestyle . Many countries that want to transform their economies tend to follow the path of fossil fuels.
Many energy experts agree that current oil-based development is unsustainable due to several factors, including declining global oil reserves, the impact of fossil fuel consumption on the planet, and the security costs of producing and transporting fossil fuels .
The transport and industries of many African countries – from Ghana to Tanzania to Zambia – depend on oil imports . Therefore, several African countries spend a large part of their GDP on oil. These factors, combined with high world oil prices, have led to trade imbalances and debt in Africa.
For example, the debt of the Tema oil refinery (“TOR”) in Ghana almost prevented the company from importing crude oil, leading to several shutdowns that affected the country’s economy. The Ghanaian government was forced to pay part of the arrears so that the TOR could re-import crude oil.
By 2030, oil demand in China is projected to increase by more than 200% (from 8 to 17.5 million barrels per day). Along with demand from countries such as Argentina, Brazil, India, Turkey and the OECD, competition for access to global oil reserves will only increase . Rising demand is likely to push energy prices up in the medium term, making it more difficult for many African economies to compete.
Africa in general, and sub-Saharan Africa in particular, remains one of the most energy-poor areas in the world. The continent represents more than a quarter of the 2.5 billion people worldwide who are without access to convenient, reliable and modern technologies that provide basic needs. Africa also accounts for the largest share of the 1.6 billion people worldwide without electricity.
A report by energy expert Anton Eberhard from 2008 says that the capacity of Africa’s electricity infrastructure remains the lowest in the world. Eberhard noted that 48 sub-Saharan countries with a total population of more than 800 million produce about the same amount of electricity as Spain with a population of 45 million.
Another report , written by Vivian Foster, which focused on business activities and energy infrastructure in 26 sub-Saharan countries, states that “energy appears to be the most limiting factor, cited by more than half of companies as a major trade barrier”. Companies report a loss of 5% of their revenues due to frequent power outages. The value has risen to 20% for companies that cannot afford backup generators. TaTEDO , a Tanzanian non-governmental organization (NGO), points out that more than 40% of agricultural products go to waste due to post-harvest losses and a lack of adequate energy to process or maintain the crop.
Not only companies face energy challenges. Households are also exposed to electricity problems. Only 16 African countries have a national electricity coverage of over 20% and there is a large difference in electricity availability between rural and urban areas. In Tanzania, for example, about 12% of households have electrical cover, but only 2% of people living in rural areas have access to electricity . People living in the countryside make up 75% of the country’s population.
Firewood and coal – the main source of energy
The lack of electricity and other forms of modern energy in Africa means that wood and charcoal for cooking, kerosene and candles for lighting will remain the main source of energy in many households and it is believed that dependence on these small forms of energy will only grow.
For example, in 1986 approximately 66% of Zambia’s energy consumption came from woodfuel, in 2010 it increased to 76%. Furthermore, 92% in Congo, 65% in Ghana and more than 92% of energy in Ethiopia come from combustible biomass, mainly wood fuels .
The use of coal, firewood, candles and kerosene as the dominant energy source places Africa in one of the least energy-intensive economic areas in the world.
The potential of renewable energy sources
While global attention is focused on the development of renewable energy as a way to promote sustainable development and sustain the climate threat, progress in developing Africa’s rich renewable energy has been slow. Eberhard et al, estimate that 93% of Africa’s hydropower potential remains untapped.
Given the global demand and competition for fossil fuels associated with rising prices and the debt burden of African oil-importing countries, it is clear that Africa cannot take the path of development based on fossil fuels. Renewable energy sources , on the other hand, have the potential to help African countries strengthen their economies , free them from dependence on fossil fuels, and reduce the debt burden associated with oil imports.
Renewable energy sources can also help increase households’ access to modern energy services, reduce energy poverty, improve the quality of life, empower women, create jobs and bridge inequalities between urban and rural areas . At the same time, they have the potential to protect the environment, reduce conflicts over natural resources (eg the collection of firewood), slow down rural-urban migration and related urbanization, and reduce carbon emissions.
African governments need to work with the private sector and other relevant bodies to take the initiative to develop the necessary policies, institutions and infrastructures for the use of Africa’s rich renewable energy sources. Efforts must also focus on addressing human, financial and managerial capacities to achieve economic growth, development and prosperity in Africa.