Sub-Saharan Africa, home to more than 1.3 billion people, is arguably the most electricity-poor region in the world. This is according to a World Bank report which shows that one in three people lack access to electricity in Africa, of which 87% live in rural areas.
Persistent electricity scarcity in Africa has crippled the region’s economic growth and prevented it from attaining several of its health and education development goals; as causes of this scarcity include lack of generation capacity to supply power to grid-connected regions, absence of proper grid infrastructure to deliver this power and regulatory impediments to providing steady revenue to maintain and invest in new generation capacity
Efforts to improve the power supply in the continent have been initiated through the exploration and development of renewable energies throughout the continent. These developments are further boosted by government incentives in combination with global environmental initiatives, aimed at utilizing unexploited renewable energy resources throughout sub-Saharan Africa.
While the investment and utilization of renewable energies has the potential to reshape African economies, African countries are only recently unlocking their vast renewable resources. According to a report by the International Energy Agency (IEA), a mere 10% of sub-Saharan’s hydropower potential is currently being exploited, justifying the opportunity for investment and development in the sector.
This lack of systematic planning for the power sector has resulted in the region’s dependence on fossil fuel plants which creates a multifaceted problem of supply and price variability, with fuel producers curtailing supply under low prices and consumers suffering economic losses during periods of high prices. In addition, climate change is projected to have a substantial impact on the reliability of hydropower resources in sub-Saharan Africa.
The region is home to abundant fossil and renewable energy sources. The technical potential for generation capacity is estimated at about 10,000 GW of solar power, 350 GW of hydroelectricity, and 400 GW of natural gas, totaling more than 11,000 GW. The limiting factors in the region’s electricity development are effective technical, financing, and policy mechanisms to enable the development of these resources.
In addition, the region’s lack of grid infrastructure can be transformed into an opportunity to lead the way toward better-designed, more efficient, sustainable power systems without being hindered by legacy carbon-intensive assets
Energy transformation in Africa
Accelerated deployment of renewables creates jobs and brings health benefits. The renewable energy sector today employs 10.3 million people worldwide. With far-sighted industrial policies and targeted skills development, millions of new jobs can be created in Africa. Doubling the share of renewables by 2030 would create additional economic value by increasing global gross domestic product by up to 1.1%. This would signify a 3.7% improvement in global welfare and jobs for over 24 million people in the renewable energy sector. This would enable further economic benefits such as improved healthcare services, especially in the most remote areas. It would also further support the empowerment of women, who represented 35% of the renewable energy labour force in 2016 and whose role will become more prominent, notably through the productive use of renewable energy.
Since 2000, many parts of Africa have been experiencing rapid economic growth and improving social conditions. The continent’s average real gross domestic product growth according to the Africa Development Bank reached 3.4% in 2019 and is projected to rise to around 4.1% in 2021. Given the continent’s large and growing population, energy demand will rise quickly in the decades to come.
Endowed with substantial renewable energy resources, Africa can adopt innovative, sustainable technologies and to play a leading role in global action to shape a sustainable energy future. Supply unreliability is a concern holding back economic development, with most countries facing frequent blackouts and often relying on expensive and polluting solutions. Clean, indigenous and affordable renewable energy solutions offer the continent the chance to achieve its economic, social, environmental and climate objectives. Sustainable development and use of the continent’s massive biomass, geothermal, hydropower, solar and wind power have the potential to rapidly change Africa’s current realities.
Renewables provide the chance to leapfrog to a sustainable, prosperous future for all. Increasing access to reliable, affordable and clean energy resources is a key priority, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa. Around 600 million people in Africa still have no access to electricity, representing 48% of the continent’s population of nearly 1.2 billion.
Thanks to resource endowments and technology improvements, Africa has the opportunity to pursue a much less carbon-intensive model of development than seen in many other parts of the world. The challenges and opportunities differ widely across a diverse continent. But renewables, together with natural gas in many areas, are poised to lead Africa’s energy consumption growth as the continent moves away from the traditional use of biomass that currently accounts for almost half of final energy consumption. With the appropriate policies to support a strong expansion of clean technologies and sufficient emphasis on energy efficiency improvements, Africa could be the first continent to achieve a significant level of economic and industrial growth with cleaner energy sources playing a prominent role than other economies in the past.