Renewable energy in Africa

Renewable energy in Africa

The developing nations of Africa are popular locations for the application of renewable energy technology. Currently, many nations already have small-scale solar, wind, and geothermal devices in operation providing energy to urban and rural populations. These types of energy production are especially useful in remote locations because of the excessive cost of transporting electricity from large-scale power plants. The application of renewable energy technology has the potential to alleviate many of the problems that face Africans every day, especially if done so in a sustainable manner that prioritizes human rightsOr|date=September 2008.


Africa is the largest and most populous continent in the world after Asia. Covering 20.4% of the available land area world wide, it is home to over 900 million people distributed within 53 countries. Approximately one-third of the estimated 1.6 billion people living without access to electricity worldwide live in Africa. [ [ About 650 million Africans may lack access to electricity by 2030, delegates told at CSD4] , Adeyemi Y. (2005)] It is estimated that, with the exception of Libya [ [ Libya Reinforces the Mediterranean Ring] , Transmission and Distribution World, "Retrieved 31 Aug 2008".] ,South Africa and Egypt, the majority of African counties are only able to provide direct access to electricity to 20% of their peoples. This number is as low as 5% in some countries. Most of the exisitng power plants and transmission equipment were constructed in the 1950s & 1960s, and in the absence of proper maintenance have deteriorated over the last several decades; the degradation has forced many utilities to operate at small fractions of their installed capacity. [ [ Energy Key to Africa’s Prosperity] , Madamombe I. (2005), Africa Renewal, Vol.18 no.4 p. 6] Access to energy is essential for the reduction of poverty and promotion of economic growth. Communication technologies, education, industrialization, agricultural improvement and expansion of municipal water systems all require abundant, reliable, and cost-effective energy access. [ [ The Human Development Report 2001] , United Nations Development Programme]

Avoiding fossil fuels

By investing in the long term energy solutions that alternative energy sources afford, most African nations would benefit significantly in the longer term by avoid the pending economic problems developed countries are currently facing.

Although in many ways fossil fuels provide a simple, easy to use energy source that powered the industrialization of most modern nations, the issues associated with the widespread use of fossil fuels are now numerous, consisting of some of the world's most difficult and large scale global political, economic, health and environmental problems. The looming energy crisis results from consuming these fossil fuels at a rate which is unsustainable, with the global demand for fossil fuels expected to increase every year for the next several decades, compounding existing problems. [ [ Nuclear Energy and the Fossil Fuels] , M.K. Hubbert.]

While a great number of projects are currently underway to expand and connect the existing grid networks, [ [ Annual Report] , Page 2, Eskom (2006)] too many problems exist to make this a realistic option for the vast majority of people in Africa, especially those who live in rural locations. Distributed generation using renewable energy systems is the only practical solution to meet rural electrification needs. [ [ Letter to International Finance Corporation] , Woicke P. (2000)] [ [ Expanding Electricity Access to Remote Areas: Off Grid Rural Electrification in Developing Countries] , Reich et al. (2000)]

Renewable energy resources

Hydro-electric, wind and solar power all derive their energy from the Sun. The Sun emits more energy in one second (3.827 × 1026 J) than is available in all of the fossil fuels present on earth (3.9 × 1022 J) [Wikipedia article on Orders of Magnitude(Energy)] , and therefore has the potential to provide all of our current and future global energy requirements. Since the fuel source for renewable energy is clean and free, African nations can protect their people, their environment, and their future economic development by using renewable energy sources [ [ Alternative energy sources for electricity generation: Their 'energy effectiveness' and their viability for undeveloped and developing countries] , Jobe Z. (2006)] to this end they have a number of possible options. [ [ 8th Pan African Power Congress Hearing Summary] ]

olar resources

Many African countries receive on average 325 days per year of bright sunlight. [ [ Solar Power in Africa] , National Solar Power Research Institute, Yansane A. 2007] This gives solar power the potential to bring energy to virtually any location in Africa without the need for expensive large scale grid level infrastructural developments.

The distribution of solar resources across Africa is fairly uniform, with more than 80 percent of their landscape receiving almost 2000KWh per square meter per year. A recent study indicates that that a solar generating facility covering just 0.3% of the area comprising North Africa could supply all of the energy required by the European Union. [ [ Report on Solar Power Potential] , German Aerospace Center]

Wave and wind resources

Africa has a large coastline, where wind power and wave power resources are abundant and underutilized in the north and south. Geothermal power has potential to provide considerable amounts of energy in many eastern African nations. [ Geothermal Potential in East Africa] ]

Wind is far less uniformly distributed than solar resources, with optimal locations positioned near special topographical funnelling features close to coastal locations, mountain ranges, and other natural channels in the north and south. The availability of wind on the western coast of Africa is substantial, exceeding 3,750 kWh, and will accommodate the future prospect for energy demands [ [ Background Information] , Sahara Wind.] [ Cassedy, Edward S. Prospects for sustainable Energy: A Critical Assessment. New York Cambridge UP, 2000.] Central Africa has lower than average wind resources to work with. [ [ African Wind Energy Association Summary] ]

Geothermal resources

Geothermal power is mostly concentrated in eastern Africa, but there are many fragmented spots of high intensity geothermal potential spread across the continent. [ Malin P.E (2001) Establishment of Geothermal Resource Center to Accelerate the Development of Eastern Africa ] There is enormous potential for geothermal energy in the Great Rift Valley which is roughly 3,700 miles in length and spans several countries in East Africa including Eritrea, Ethiopia, Djibouti, Kenya, Uganda, and Zambia.


The use of biomass fuels endangers biodiversity and risks further damaged or destruction to the landscape. 86% of Africa’s biomass energy is used in the sub-Saharan region, excluding South Africa. [Energy in Africa, Chapter 7, United States Energy Information Administration [] ] Even where other forms of energy are available, it is not harnessed and utilized efficiently, underscoring the need to promote energy efficiency where energy access is available. [ [ Building a Sustainable Energy Base (NEPAD Platform)] ]

There is, however, an urgent need to address the current levels of respiratory illness from burning biomass in the home. Taking into respect the cost differential between the biomass and fossil fuels, it is far more cost-effective to improve the technology used to burn the biomass than to use fossil fuels. [ [ Benefits of clean fuel in Africa would be enormous] , Kevin Myron, Harvard Gazette Archives]

Horizontal integration potential

Solar and wind power are extremely scalable, as there are systems available from less than 1 watt to several megawatts. This makes it possible to initialize the electrification of a home or village with minimal initial capital. The also allows for dynamic and incremental scaling as load demands increases. The component configuration of a wind or solar installation also provides a level of functional redundancy, improving the reliability of the system. If a single panel in a multi panel solar array is damaged, the rest of the system continues functioning unimpeded. In a similar way, the failure of a single wind tower in a multi tower configuration does not cause a system level failure.

Because solar and wind projects produce power where it is used, they provide a safe, reliable and cost effective solution. Because transmission equipment is avoided, these systems are more secure, and less vulnerable to attack. [ [ Prospects for Distributed Electricity Generation] , Congressional Budget Office (2003)] This can be an important feature in regions prone to conflict. Wind and solar power systems are simple to set up, easy to operate, easy to repair, and durable. Wind resources and solar resource are abundant enough to provide all of the electrical energy requirements of rural populations, and this can be done in remote and otherwise fragmented low density areas that are impractical to address using conventional grid based systems. [ [ AN ENERGY MODEL FOR A LOW INCOME RURAL AFRICAN VILLAGE] , Howells M.I, et al. (2003)]


Photo-voltaic panels, wind turbines deep cycle batteries, meters, sockets cables and connectors are all expensive. Even when the relative difference in buying power, materials cost, opportunity cost, labor cost and overhead are factored in, renewable energy will remain expensive for people who are living on less than US$1 per day. Many rural electrification projects in the past use government subsidies to finance the implementation of rural development programs. It is difficult for rural electrification projects to be accomplished by for profit companies; in economically impoverished areas these programs muse be run at a loss for reasons of practicality. [ [ Africa Regional Findings (2001) Rural Electrification: Lessons Learned] , "World Bank"] There are several theorized ways in which specific African nations can rally the resources for such projects.

Potential funding sources

European countries that consume oil refined from African countries have the opportunity to subsidize the costs of individual level, village level, or community level alternative energy systems through emissions trading credits. It has been proposed that for every unit of African origin carbon consumed by the European market, a predetermined amount green credits or carbon credits would be yielded. [ [ Britain Urges Global Carbon Trading To Spur Eco-Healthy Growth] , Aziakou G. (2006)] The European partners could then either supply parts, components, or systems directly, an equivalent amount of investment capital, or lend credits to finance the distribution of renewable energy services, knowledge or equipment. [ [ Sustainable Energy Finance Activity Overview] , UNEP (2006)]

International relief targeted at poverty reduction could also be redirected towards subsidizing renewable energy projects. Because of the integral role that electrification plays in supporting economic and social development, funding of rural electrification can be seen as core method for addressing poverty. Radios, televisions, telephones, computer networks and computers all rely on an access to electricity. Because information services allow for the proliferation of education resources, funding the electric backbone to such systems has derivative effect on their development. In this way access to communications and education plays a major role in reducing poverty. Additionally, international efforts that supplies equipment and services rather than money, are more resistant to resource misappropriation issue that pose problems in less stable governments. [ [ Good intentions: the mismanagement of foreign aid] , Heckt J.L (1996)]

UNEP has developed a loan programme to stimulate renewable energy market forces with attractive return rates, buffer initial deployment costs and entice consumers to consider and purchase renewable technology. After a successful solar loan program sponsored by UNEP that helped 100,000 people finance solar power systems in developing countries like India, [ [ Solar loan program in India] ] UNEP started similar schemes in other parts of developing world like Africa - Tunisia, Morocco, Kenya projects are already functional and many projects in other African nations are in the pipeline [ [ Solar loan programme, kenya] ] . In Africa, UNEP assistance to Ghana, Kenya and Namibia has resulted in the adoption of draft National Climate Awareness Plans, publications in local languages, radio programmes and seminars. [ [ UNEP on climate change] ] The Rural Energy Enterprise Development (REED) initiative is another flagship UNEP effort focused on enterprise development and seed financing for clean energy entrepreneurs in developing countries of West and Southern Africa. [ [ UNEP REED fund] ]

Renewable energy use

olar power

Several large-scale solar power facilities are under development in Africa including projects in South Africa and Algeria. [Nji, Renatus. 2006. What alternatives to oil in Africa? "Africa Renewal." Vol.20. p. 17.] Although solar power technology has the potential to supply energy to large numbers of people, and has been used to generate power on a large scale in the U.S. and other developed nations, its greatest potential in Africa may be to provide power on a smaller scale and to use this energy to help with day to day needs such as small-scale electrification, desalination, water pumping, and water purification.

olar water pumping

One of the most immediate and lethal problems facing many third world countries is the availability of clean drinking water. Solar powered technologies can help alleviate this problem with minimal cost using a combination of solar powered well pumping, a water tower or other holding tank, and a solar powered water purifier. These technologies require minimal maintenance, have low operational costs, and once set up, will help provide clean water for drinking and agriculture. With large enough reservoirs for the water that has been pumped and purified with solar powered technology, a community will be better able to withstand drought or famine. This reservoir water could be consumed by humans, livestock, or used to irrigate community gardens and fields, thus improving crop yields and community health. A solar powered water purification system can be used to clean many pathogens and germs from groundwater and runoff. A group of these devices, filtering the water from wells or runoff could help with poor sanitation and controlling the spread of waterborne illnesses.

Kenya may be a good candidate for testing out these systems because of its progressive and relatively well-funded department of agriculture, including the Kenya Agricultural Research Center [] , which provides funding and oversight to many projects investigating experimental methods and technologies.

Even though this solar technology may have a higher starting cost than that of conventional fossil fuel, the low maintenance and operation cost and the ability to operate without fuel makes the solar powered systems cheaper to keep running. A small rural community could use a system like this indefinitely, and it would provide clean drinking water at a negligible cost after the initial equipment purchase and setup. In a larger community, it could at least contribute to the water supply and reduce pressures of daily survival. This technology is capable of pumping hundreds of gallons of water per day, and is limited only by the amount of water available in the water table.

With a minimum of training in operation and maintenance, solar powered water pumping and purification systems have the potential to help rural Africans fulfill one of their most basic needs for survival. Further field test are in progress by organizations like KARI and the many corporations that manufacture the products needed, and these small-scale applications of solar technology are promising. Combined with sustainable agricultural practices and conservation of natural resources, solar power is a prime candidate to bring the benefits of technology to the parched lands of Africa.

Supplementing the well water would be collection of runoff rainwater during the rainy season for later use in drought. Southern Africa has its own network of information sharing called SEARNET [] which informs farmers of techniques to catch and store rainwater, with some seeing increased yields and additional harvests. [Moyo, S. and Nyimo, T. 2006. Regional Annex Rainwater Harvesting in Southern Africa. "The WELL resource centre for water, sanitation and environmental health."] This new network of farmers sharing their ideas with each other has led to a spread of both new and old ideas, and this has led to greater sustainability of water resources in the countries of Botswana, Ethiopia, Kenya, Malawi, Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe. This water could be used for agriculture or livestock, or could be fed through a purifier to yield water suitable for human consumption.


A solar powered water pump and holding system was installed in Kayrati, Chad, in 2004 as compensation for land lost to oil development. [ [ CHAD: Trying to make oil wealth work for the people] , UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs] This system utilizes a standard well pump powered by a photovoltaic panel array. The pumped water is stored in a water tower, providing the pressure needed to deliver water to homes in the area. This use of oil revenue to build infrastructure is an example of using profits to advance the standard of living in rural areas.

Hundreds of solar water pumping stations in Sudan fulfil a similar role, involving various applications of different systems for pumping and storage. Over the past 10 years approximately. 250 photovoltaic water pumps have been installed in Sudan. Considerable progress has been made and the present generation of systems appear to be reliable and cost–effective under certain conditions. A photovoltaic pumping system to pump 25 cubic metres per day requires a solar array of approx. 800 Wp. Such a pump would cost US$6000, since the total system comprises the cost of modules, pump, motor, pipework, wiring, control system and array support structure. PV water pumping has been promoted successfully in Kordofan state in Sudan. It shows favorable economics as compared to diesel pumps, and is free from the need to maintain a regular supply of fuel. The only maintenance problems with PV pumping [are] due to the breakdown of pumps and not the failure of the PV devices. [Omer, Abdeen Mustafa. 2000. Solar water pumping clean water for Sudan rural areas. "Renewable Energy" Vol. 24. (pp.245–258)]

The Solar Water Purifier, developed and manufactured by an Australian company, is a low-maintenance, low operational cost solution that is able to purify large amounts of water, even seawater, to levels better than human consumption standards set by the World Health Organization. [ [ How SWP Works] , Solar Water Purifier website, 2007] This device works through the processes of evaporation and UV radiation. Light passes through the top layer of glass to the black plastic layer underneath. Heat from the solar radiation is trapped by the water and by the black plastic. This plastic layer is a series of connected troughs that separate the water as it evaporates and trickles down through the levels. The water is also subjected to UV radiation for an extended period of time as it moves through the device, which kills many bacteria, viruses, and other pathogens. In a sunny, equatorial area like much of Africa, this device is capable of purifying up to 45 litres per day from a single array. Additional arrays may be chained together for more capacity.

Wind power

Currently there are projects being planned in South Africa to implement the use of a wind farm, or large, commercial scale operations. Construction of Wind farms in South Africa is a very promising sign for the potential of wind generated power in Africa. The construction of these wind farms is being planned for west coast, north of Cape Town.

Geothermal power

So far, only Kenya has exploited the geothermal potential of the Great Rift Valley.. Kenya has been estimated to contain 2000 MWe of potential geothermal energy [ Geothermal Potential in Kenya] ] and has twenty potential drilling sites marked for survey in addition to three operational geothermal plants. [] , International Geothermal Association] . Kenya was the first country in Africa to adopt geothermal energy, in 1956, and houses the largest geothermal power plant on the continent, Olkaria II, operated by Kengen, who also operate Olkaria I. A further plant, Olkaria III, is privately owned and operated.

Ethiopia is home to a single binary-cycle plant but does not utilize its full potential energy output for lack of experience in its operation. Zambia has several sites planned for construction but their projects have stalled due to lack of funds. Eritrea, Djibouti and Uganda have undertaken preliminary exploration for potential geothermal sources but have not constructed any type of power plant.

Geothermal power has been used in agricultural projects in Africa. The Oserian flower farm in Kenya utilizes several steam wells abandoned by Kengen to power its greenhouse. In addition, the heat involved in the geothermal process is used to maintain stable greenhouse temperatures. The heat can also be utilized in cooking which would help eliminate the dependence on wood burning. [ [ Kenya Looks Underground for Power] , "BBC"]


Exploration and construction of future geothermal plants present a high cost for poor countries [Geothermal Energy [] ] . Drilling potential sites alone costs millions of dollars and can result in zero energy return if the consistency of the heat and steam is unreliable. [Kenya Looks Underground for Power [] ] Return on investments into geothermal power are not as quick as those into fossil fuels and may take years to pay off, however, low maintenance cost and the renewable nature of geothermal energy means more benefits in the long term. [ [ Geothermal Energy] ]

As an early and successful adopter of geothermal power, Kenya now has significant financial backing from the World Bank. The country hosts development conferences between representatives of the UN Environment Program and various African governments.

ee also

*Renewable energy development
*Renewable energy commercialization
*Indoor air pollution in developing nations
*Kyoto Protocol
*Avoiding Dangerous Climate Change


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