How Might Africa Transition to Renewable Energy?

Lessons from energy transitions in advanced countries

With less than ten years left to achieve Sustainable Development Goal 7 (SDG 7), the need to accelerate the pace of connecting those remaining 573 million people in Africa without affordable and reliable energy has never been more urgent. But the world faces the challenge of tackling global climate change and has committed under the Paris Agreement to “keeping a global temperature rise to below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase even further to 1.5 degrees Celsius”.UN. (2019). Secretary-General’s remarks at opening ceremony of UN Climate Change Conference COP25.As a demonstration of their commitment, at least 12 African countries — Djibouti, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Gambia, Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Morocco, Niger, Rwanda, Senegal, Sudan and Tanzania have targets of achieving 100% renewable electricity generation on or before 2050.REN21. (2020). Renewables 2020 Global Status Report. REN21 Secretariat.

Due to an abundance of renewable energy options in Africa and their declining cost, some have called for leapfrogging over fossil fuels to these newer and cleaner sources of energy.Onyeji-Nwogu, I. (2017). Chapter 3—Harnessing and Integrating Africa’s Renewable Energy Resources. In L. E. Jones (Ed.), Renewable Energy Integration (Second Edition) (pp. 27–38). Academic Press., C. (2019) How African countries can leapfrog the fossil-fuel based growth in developed countries, African Energy Portal. https://africa-energy-portal.o...Is this possible? What might we learn from the energy transition in advanced countries?

The energy transition in advanced countries

The history of power sector development in advanced economies that have mature power systems and universal access to modern energy generally points to a dual transition — from independent to interdependent systems on one hand, and from cheap to appropriate energy technologies on the other (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: Stylized depiction of stacking energy technology options

The energy transition in the developed world, however, is largely “horizontal”. Countries are starting from a mature and balanced demand and supply scenario, with demand relatively flat. These countries can transition gradually from 0% renewables to 50% and even higher shares, all while relying on dispatchable, typically fossil fuel, generators for variable renewable energy back-up and resilience against grid failures. This is the concept of stacking. Changes are expected to be incremental rather than revolutionary.

In the early stages of growth, countries use whatever technology and fuel source that is cheap, readily available, and easiest to utilize regardless of the environmental costs. One of the first power plants in the UK, for example, was the coal-fired Holborn Viaduct power station which began operating in 1882.The Electricity Council. (1987). Electricity supply in the United Kingdom—A chronology from the beginning of the industry to 31st December 1985. The Electricity Council.This preceded the development of large fleets of coal-fired generators.

The theme of energy independence was widely promoted in response to the first (1973/4) and second oil crisis (1979). In December of 1979, the Secretary of Energy announced a new nuclear program with a target of installing 15 GW in ten years.Pearson, P., & Watson, J. (2012). UK Energy Policy 1980-2010 A history and lessons to be learnt. UK Parliamentary Group for Energy Studies.Across the Atlantic, the United States under the Reagan administration was developing a similar program of energy independence with “limited environmental restrictions and regulations obstructing accelerated energy production”.Temkin, B. (1983). State, Ecology and Independence: Policy Responses to the Energy Crisis in the United States. British Journal of Political Science, 13(4), 441-462. Retrieved September 9, 2020, from related to the oil crisis, the French Messmer plan sought to generate all its power through nuclear.International Directory of Company Histories (2001), Electricité de France (EDF) History, Vol. 41. St. James Press, 2001Before then, most of France’s electricity was powered by imported fossil fuels.

In the mid to late 1990s, environmental concerns gained prominence in regional and international discussions around electricity generation as signified by the signing of the Kyoto Protocol in 1997. Around the same time, the European Commission aggressively promoted the European single market in electricity, which eventually led to significant changes in price, security of supply, and innovation while also introducing competition across the market and promoting interdependence.Pollitt, M. G. (2019). The European Single Market in Electricity: An Economic Assessment. Review of Industrial Organization, 55(1), 63–87. interdependence enabled the use of cleaner power generation options even in countries that had limited green resources. The prospects of developing electricity trading pools and markets have been explored in Asia, Latin America, North America, and Africa. Regions and countries not only view the power pools as ways of strengthening their supply options but also as a proven strategy to strengthen power system resilience. Although the legacy fleets of cheaper and readily available generating sources are maintained, as electricity markets advance, they progressively play a diminishing role compared to greener, more advanced, options.

Opportunities to prioritize renewable energy have not been applied equally across all advanced economies. It is instructive that despite advances in financial and technological capabilities, Germany, one of the global leaders in renewable energy development, only plans to shut down its last coal-fired power plant in 2038 demonstrating the difficulty of switching to clean energy sources. This transition plan is expected to cost about US$ 45 billion.Deutsche Welle (2020), Germany approves coal phase out by 2038, the meantime, Germany remains the fourth largest consumer of coal in the world.Fraunhofer IS. (2020). Net installed electricity generation capacity in Germany. Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft zur Förderung der angewandten Forschung e.V. also plans to import natural gas via the massive Nord Stream 2 project.

Africa’s energy transition

African countries are building out their generation and transmission infrastructure from a low base, so the energy transition is largely “vertical” — moving up from a low electricity demand and supply to a high demand and supply scenario that will inevitably include a significant share of variable renewable energy. This is fundamentally different from the “horizontal” shift in advanced economies that involves switching generation capacity from fossil fuels to renewable energy.

The Democratic Republic of the Congo is a good example. If constructed, the proposed Grand Inga project in the DRC could generate 40 GW of hydropower along the Congo River, potentially making it one of the largest power stations in the world.Attia, B., (2020) Too big to succeed? Africa’s clean energy mega-projects, Energy for Growth Hub, Washington DC.Meanwhile, less than one in five homes in the DRC have access to electricity.ESMAP (2019), Tracking SDG7: Online database contrast between potential and need summarises the state of electricity access in Africa where more than half of the population has never had the basic privilege, and simple joy, of switching on a light bulb in their home. Access to a cheap and reliable supply of electricity is a binding constraint for many businesses across Africa.

Conventional generating plants strengthen the flexibility of the grid and that is why there is no country that has decommissioned its entire fleet of fossil fuel plants, even with the decline in prices and advancement in clean energy technology. Many African countries will still require significant capacity from fossil fuel-powered generators. Stacking the conventional and cheap with the green and advanced is demonstrated through an innovative retrofitted system in Southern California Edison’s peaker plant in Norwalk, California. Here, a 10 MW/ 4.3 MWh battery is coupled with a natural gas peaking power plant to provide spinning and frequency control services. The battery component provides the spinning reserve requirements during the first few minutes required for the gas plant to start up, after which the plant can ramp up to full capacity while the battery output decreases.IEA. (2019). Status of Power System Transformation 2019—Power system flexibility. International Energy Agency. variations to this stacking practice are also seen in growing markets where redundancies and contingencies are built into the power supply systems to address extreme conditions.

Disruptions in rainfall patterns in east and southern Africa have impacted the reliability of hydropower. Debilitating droughts in Kenya caused nationwide load shedding in 1999-2000 and in 2014-5, Zambia’s hydropower production potential declined by up to 50%.Trace, S. (2019) Impacts of climate change on hydropower in Africa, Oxford Policy Management, 2016, water levels in the Kariba dam which is the main source of power for Zimbabwe dropped to 12% — levels last seen in 1992.Bulawayo, P., (2016) Zimbawe’s main hydro power dam running out of water after drought, Environment, Reuters News.Climate change is expected to result in more frequent and extreme interruptions in hydropower potential.Falchetta, G., Gernaat, D. E. H. J., Hunt, J., & Sterl, S. (2019). Hydropower dependency and climate change in sub-Saharan Africa: A nexus framework and evidence-based review. Journal of Cleaner Production, 231, 1399–1417., D., Dalin, C., Landman, W. A., & Osborn, T. J. (2017). Hydropower plans in eastern and southern Africa increase risk of concurrent climate-related electricity supply disruption. Nature Energy, 2(12), 946–953. of the national governments through their utilities or independent power producers have established fossil-fuel-fired emergency power supply units, which have been maintained even after the hydrology was restored.

The widespread blackout experienced in the United Kingdom on August 9, 2019, demonstrates system-wide vulnerability but also the potential to plan for extreme scenarios. Although they are not the main source of electricity, batteries and gas-fired generators were on hand to provide complementary services during the blackout. Following the event, a gas-fired generator provided the sustained power to help ease the blackout that had affected 10-15% of the entire national grid and left people stuck in trains for nine hours.Hall, M. (2019). Energy storage is not enough, a renewable grid needs flexible gas back-up. African countries similar capabilities, which may require investment in fossil fuel generators, is perverse.

The Global Atlas for Renewable Energy estimates an economic potential of up to 3,834 GW for wind, 15,334 GW for solar PV and 5,282 GW for solar CSP in 21 high potential countries in Africa.IRENA. (2020). Scaling up renewable energy deployment in Africa—Detailed overview of IRENA’s engagement and impact. International Renewable Energy Agency.As shown in Figure 2 below, several countries have a high potential for renewable energy generation exceeding their domestic demand. IRENA estimates that Africa could meet nearly a quarter of its energy needs from clean renewable energy resources by 2030 and as much as two-thirds by 2050.

Africa has abundant supplies of natural gas, which is environmentally superior to coal and diesel. As Africa transitions to clean energy, gas infrastructure can be re-purposed to support a low carbon future.Thurber, N. (2020). Power-to-gas for long term energy storage. Energy for Growth Hub.The potential role of leveraging gas as backup support to quickly accelerate the uptake of higher shares of variable renewable energy has been demonstrated. A study of variable renewable energy integration between 1990 and 2013 across 26 OECD countries reveals the advantage of having fast response fossil fuel generation options as support to variable renewable energy.Verdolini, E., Vona, F., & Popp, D. (2018). Bridging the gap: Do fast-reacting fossil technologies facilitate renewable energy diffusion? Energy Policy, 116, 242–256. study finds that a unit increase in the share of fast-reacting fossil generators is associated with a similar increase in renewable energy in the long run. It is important to distinguish installed capacity from electricity generation when considering this finding. Generation can be dependent on renewable energy sources when fossil fuels are used as a backup to cover shortfalls and intermittency.

The challenges and obstacles of renewable energy integration in rich economies with mature energy infrastructure and flat demand are fundamentally different from those faced by developing countries, especially those in Africa. Integrating intermittent generation sources requires appropriate backup generation capacity and storage, flexible transmission and distribution infrastructure, and advanced grid management capacity based on automated or smart controls.Denholm, P., O’Connell, M., Brinkman, G., & Jorgenson, J. (2015). Overgeneration from Solar Energy in California: A Field Guide to the Duck Chart
(NREL/TP-6A20-65023). National Renewable Energy Laboratory, U.S. Department of Energy, Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy.
ESMAP. (2019). Grid Integration Requirements for Variable Renewable Energy—ESMAP Technical Guide. World Bank, Energy Sector Management Assistance Program.IRENA. (2017). Planning for the Renewable Future: Long-term modelling and tools to expand variable renewable power in emerging economies, International Renewable Energy Agency.IRENA. (2020). Global Renewables Outlook: Energy transformation 2050. International Renewable Energy Agency. markets with high variable renewable ambitions such as those in Europe and the UK are well positioned on these three dimensions. The UK has gas-fired backup with combined cycle gas turbines (CCGT) contributing about 30% of national installed capacity.UK Gov. (2019). UK Energy in brief—2019. Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, National Statistics. https://assets.publishing.serv...Available evidence points to the fact that backup generation capacity will be critical for the success of renewable energy in Africa.

Figure 2: Indicative map of countries with high potential for low-carbon generation potential

The climate impact associated with such investments will be minimal. If Sub-Saharan African countries were to triple their current electricity consumption overnight using natural gas (a non-variable option), the additional CO2 would represent less than 1% of global emissions but would transform the lives of hundreds of millions of Africans.Moss, T., and Kincer, J. (2020). What happens to global emissions if Africa triples down on natural gas for power? blanket moratorium on investing in fossil fuels in Africa, especially gas power, will curtail Africa’s aspiration under SDG 1 (end poverty), SDG 7 (universal access to reliable energy), and SDG 8 (decent work and economic development) in particular. Such restrictions should only be considered after the continent attains universal access to affordable and reliable energy.