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Harnessing Africa’s Renewable Energy Potential for Sustainable Development

Africa is one of the fastest growing regions in the world, with a GDP growth averaging between 3.1 percent and 6.6 percent over the past ten years (African Economic Outlook 2014). Its population is expected to reach 1.9 billion by 2050. However, only 42.6 percent of Africans have access to electricity. The figure stands at 31.8 percent for Sub-Saharan Africa. Having a consistent and reliable energy source is a key pre-requisite for development. Without access to consistent electricity, the continent’s continued development runs the risk of being stunted, as energy is a key pre-requisite for development.

If the current trend were to continue, the number of people without access to electricity can be expected to increase to 655 million by 2050 (IRENA, Africa’s Renewable Future: The Path to Sustainable Growth, 2013). Large-scale energy investment, in a manner that is cost effective, sustainable and utilizes locally available resources, is therefore urgently needed in Africa.

In order to achieve this, Africa must tap into its vast potential for renewable energy, particularly solar, hydro and geothermal power. While hydro and geothermal power will each contribute to the power mix in Africa, it seems that solar power is primed to take center stage as African countries look to bolster their electrification efforts.

In fact, projections indicate that the share of renewables in Africa’s power mix will rise from 1 percent today to 22 percent in 2040, with solar power making up more than half of this expansion, and 12 percent of the total electricity generation capacity of Africa by 2040 – the equivalent of 15 GW (Africa Energy Outlook: A Focus on Energy Prospects in Sub-Saharan Africa, International Energy Agency, 2014).

One country that has made significant progress in this area is Ethiopia. The Ethiopian government has committed to enhancing access to affordable and environmentally friendly renewable energy through its Climate-Resilient Green Economy Strategy. This strategy aims to develop Ethiopia into a middle-income nation by 2025. One of the four pillars in achieving this goal is investment in green energy, as “adopting green economy practices on [a] large a scale will unlock economic growth, create jobs for the growing population, and deliver wider socio-economic benefits” (Ethiopia’s Climate Resilient Green Economy Strategy).

A significant step towards that goal, the Ethiopian government’s Ministry of Water, Irrigation and Energy, together with academics from Addis Ababa University of Science and Technology and the Adama Science and Technology University have initiated the process of installing two commercial pilot sites of AORA Solar’s Tulip. This system is village scale, producing 100kW of electricity and 170 kW of heat, taking up just 3,000m² of land – a fraction of the space needed for photovoltaic panels –and runs on solar power during the day, seamlessly switching to biogas at night or during cloudy periods.  The Tulip is particularly ideal for rural African villages, as it allows 24-hour power without the need for a grid connection or costly battery storage.

The importance of having a consistent source of electricity cannot be overstated. Having consistent electricity as well as thermal energy can lead to holistic sustainable development that African nations are striving towards. For example, having access to light on a consistent basis school children would be able to study and do homework in the evenings. Businesses, hospitals, schools and many other facilities would not have to rely on sunlight or partial access to electricity to maintain normal operation. Simply having consistent lighting could lead to immense economic growth by extending business hours.

Thermal energy is another important driver of development. By utilizing absorption chillers, the heat can be made to provide refrigeration. This means people could store food without fear of spoilage, women would not need to start fresh preparing food every single day, but could use their time to work. With refrigeration, suddenly a whole new segment of the population could be more available to contribute to local development.

In addition to the endless economic opportunities enabled by electricity and thermal power, investing in these technologies in and of itself presents new opportunities to train local professionals in the construction and operation of the solar plants.

As initiatives such as Power Africa continue to propel forward the vision of an Africa that has full access to electricity, it is incumbent upon those of us in the power industry to ensure that we are not simply looking for our next deal, but to remember that through our work, we can create true sustainable development in a vast continent with vast potential and make a positive contribution to the welfare of millions of people.