• Power surge

    In an effort to escape the vicious cycle of energy deficiency, the African continent is increasingly embracing a global trend – looking to the earth and sky as renewable energy sources.

    Power surge

    Sub-Saharan Africa’s extreme energy poverty is both a symptom and a cause of its underdevelopment. It cannot diversify its industries because adequate and reliable supplies of electrical power are simply not available. At the same time, it struggles to develop generating capacity because levels of industrial demand are so low.

    As PwC states in a 2013 publication on African power utilities, only 39% of the continent’s population has access to electricity ‘compared to 70–90% in other developing countries’. The real situation is actually worse than this figure suggests, as it is distorted by the levels of access enjoyed by South Africa (86%) and the oil-rich economies of the Mediterranean littoral (95%).

    In some African countries, electricity access falls below 10%. That access is often disrupted by droughts – which regularly suspend hydroelectric capacity in East Africa – in addition to other interruptions caused by antiquated and overloaded plants.

    All this renders sub-Saharan Africa the ‘dark continent’ in the most literal sense. Even Kenya, which is one of Africa’s stronger economies, has a total power generation capacity of only approximately 1 700 megawatts (MW), about 6% of that enjoyed by South Africa.

    However, the continent’s decade-long economic boom has focused attention on this critical constraint. At the same time, the mainstreaming of renewable energy – formerly referred to as ‘alternative’ energy – in developed economies, has opened previously unconsidered options.

    African countries are in the process of seizing new opportunities in the solar and geothermal energy subsectors. In recent years, geothermal energy has made massive strides in East Africa.

    As we were taught at school, there is heat below the Earth’s surface. Where geological faults occur, heat rises to the surface as lava, volcanic ash or superheated steam.

    This steam can be captured and passed through a turbine, generating electricity. This is known as geothermal energy: it occurs all the way along the ‘fault lines’ that edge the tectonic plates which make up the surface of the planet. In theory it offers one of the most abundant sources of power available.

    African countries are seizing new opportunities in the solar and geothermal energy subsectors

    None of this is pie-in-the-sky. Two countries with massive geothermal resources – Iceland and New Zealand – have generated a large proportion of their electrical power from geothermal sources for several decades.

    There are geothermal plants all the way around the Pacific Ocean’s ‘Ring of Fire’, as the volcanic fault lines are known. The biggest areas of plant-building activity are in Indonesia (63 projects under way in 2014), Chile (54 projects) and the Philippines (29). As the world’s biggest energy user, the US is also the largest generator of thermal power, with 124 projects underway.

    The scale of geothermal revolution, however, should not be exaggerated.

    The scramble for clean, renewable sources energy in recent years has mostly been about the mainstreaming of two other modes of clean, sustainable generation, namely solar and wind power.

    Geothermal energy has been somewhat ignored in the process. In 2012 geothermal plants had a total capacity of only around 10 000 MW worldwide, about one-quarter of the total power generation of South African utility Eskom.

    That said, this is changing in ways that have significant implications for the countries of East Africa that lie along the region’s main fault line, the Great Rift Valley, which runs from the north of Mozambique to the Red Sea.

    Kenya has led the way, with geothermal energy already established as its primary mode of power generation. With 18 geothermal projects currently under way, the country is ranked sixth on the list of international development initiatives. But it is not the only candidate that may benefit. Exploratory projects are also in progress in Tanzania, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Uganda and Djibouti.

    Kenya already has working thermal energy plants. The country generates almost 20% of its electricity from the four plants at Olkaria, north-west of Nairobi. It also has big plans to boost total electricity production to 5 000 MW over the next three years, effectively tripling capacity. Nearly one-third of this is set to come from geothermal sources.

    The 400 MW Menengai geothermal project is currently under construction and due to go on stream in 2016. The government of Kenya has also committed to two smaller plants at Kinangop and Ngong.

    Ethiopia is also active in the thermal power sector. It was reported earlier this year that Reykjavik Geothermal has signed a US$4 billion deal to build a 1 000 MW plant by 2021. This will be the largest geothermal station in Africa, by some distance, and four times the size of anything currently in operation anywhere in the world. This might seem like reason for scepticism but Ethiopia has very big energy plans, mostly revolving around the hydroelectric potential of the Blue Nile, and intends to become a regional energy exporter.

    Geothermal energy is, of course, only an option in the immediate vicinity of active volcanic areas. With Africa being the most geologically stable of all continents, alongside Australia, this limits the number of countries that can access this source.

    There is, however, another renewable source that’s much more widely available: solar power. According to NASA, Africa has among the highest solar irradiation levels in the world.

    Up until recently, one of the primary drawbacks of solar energy has been the expense. But wider adoption in the developed world has dramatically reduced the costs.

    In Africa’s most populous countries, one in four health institutions have no access to electricity

    According to Forbes, ‘solar is closing in on price parity … with coal’. The publication argued that the unsubsidised cost of solar in the US is now US$0.13 per kilowatt-hour, compared to US$0.12 for cleaner, more modern coal-burning plants.

    Former South African Deputy Minister of Science and Technology Michael Masutha points out that: ‘As the manufacturing of solar photovoltaic cells persists in shifting to Asia, the prices continue to decline and market conditions are changing rapidly.’

    Solar energy is one of the major components of South Africa’s current renewable energy programme. In August 2011, the government launched a renewables procurement initiative, which invited bids from private sector operators in supplying the national grid. By November 2013, renewable energy contracts equating to over 4 000 MW had been signed.

    There are two kinds of solar power generation: photovoltaic (PV) and concentrated solar power (CSP) – also known as thermal. PV plants are associated with traditional solar panel technology, and have been connecting to the South African grid, incrementally as panels are added, since November 2013. However, they have the not inconsiderable limitation of being unable to generate power when the sun is not shining – at night, for example.

    CSP technology, on the other hand, has the capacity to store heat – in a ‘working fluid’ (often salts) – which is then used to run turbines. This gives CSP major potential for large-scale energy production, making the generation of base load power a viable option.

    The South African government intends to turn parts of the arid Northern Cape province into a ‘solar park corridor’, running from Upington in the west to De Aar in the east. Two CSP plants are already at an advanced stage – Khi Solar One (50 MW) near Upington, and KaXu Solar One (100 MW) near Pofadder.

    Solar power is planned throughout the continent. In May this year, the Nigerian government announced an agreement with a Canadian partner that will see the installation of a 3 000 MW PV plant, commencing in 2015.

    In Ghana, construction is under way on what will be the continent’s largest PV plant to date, a 155 MW plant at Nzema in western Ghana. Even relatively tiny Rwanda is currently building an 8.5 MW plant.

    The solar energy story in Africa will remain incomplete until off-grid solutions have been factored in. The big generation plants referred to above are all designed to contribute to the national electricity grid in their respective countries. However, the power of the sun can also be used to generate electricity at the level of local institutions – such as hospitals, schools and clinics – or even at household level.

    There is a pressing need for such small-scale development while national governments attend to the longer-term task of building national grids. A World Health Organisation (WHO) survey in 11 of Africa’s most populous countries found that one in four health institutions have no access to electricity.

    The only real alternative is diesel generation, which is expensive and difficult to maintain. The same WHO survey found that fewer than 30% of the installed diesel generators were actually operational.

    Small-scale PV technology is already filling the gap. A suitcase-sized portable kit – with a single solar panel and battery charger – has been pioneered by the NGO We Care Solar. It has been distributed to 26 health facilities in Malawi, Uganda and Tanzania. In other cases, solar mini-grids have been installed at village level.

    Kenya’s Green Alliance argues that these micro-level solar projects fill a gap ‘that other development models are not addressing’. Micro-solar has largely been the preserve of non-governmental and foreign aid organisations but this may change soon.

    Dana Younger, senior renewable energy adviser at the International Finance Corporation suggests that this is ‘a phenomenon that is sweeping the world; a huge number of these systems are being installed’.

    Although the continent’s energy decision-makers are happy to ride the renewables wave, they are not putting all their eggs in this one basket. Rolake Akinkugbe of FBN Capital in Lagos says: ‘Don’t force Africa to go green. The entire debate around low-carbon benefit should be contextualised. Africa is an extremely small contributor to global emissions, less than 3% of the total.’

    The developed world has borne the costs of developing renewable energy and Africa is now positioned to benefit.

    By David Christianson
    Image: Denis-Huot/Memis.fr/Gallo/GettyImages