Can Africa leapfrog the carbon energy age?

Africa has a chance to divert from the fossil fuels dependency path and pursue clean energy development.

Parts of Africa have good conditions for wind energy generation, argues Popov [Reuters]

Some see Africa as the land of poverty, others as the continent with the fastest economic growth. That growth, and getting out of poverty, need energy. And more energy, common wisdom suggests, means more fossil fuels – coal, oil and gas. This is why climate change policy makers do not look much at Africa when it comes to pushing for the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. They assume that in Africa the emissions should go up, and up, and up before they start going down. Look at China, India or Turkey and you get the picture.

There is, however, something that sets Africa apart from China, India or Turkey – its profound energy backwardness. Out of her one billion population, nearly 600 million have no access to an electricity grid.  And Africa is the only continent where that number is expected to rise to reach 700 million by 2030.

Africa is also big. Its map can comfortably house the maps of US, India, China, Germany, France, Spain and a few other countries. And it is also sparsely populated. There are fewer people living in the entire African continent than in India, but India is 10 times smaller than Africa. Building electricity grids across such distances to reach families that live on $4-5 a day does not make sense. Getting the power grid to remote communities can be a costly venture and the returns are highly unlikely to justify the investment. For a long time, the poor communities will remain too poor to attract necessary power grid investment.

Something else, however, is happening in Africa that could change all that. Off grid solar energy is rapidly spreading. In the last few years over 7 million off-grid Africans have replaced their kerosene lamps with solar lights. This might be just 1 percent of the off-grid African population, but it is on a scale sufficient to introduce a technology that could disrupt the expected path of development. The reasons are at least four.

First, the change to the family budget that a solar light brings is significant. According to SolarAid, one of the organisations introducing solar lights to Africa, by replacing kerosene with solar power LED light in Tanzania, typically you can save more than a dollar a week. This is a significant amount of money for the 48 percent of the sub-Saharan people that live on less than $1.25 a day.

Second, solar power can be expanded and connected. You can get one panel and you will replace a kerosene lamp. Get two and you will be able to charge your mobile phone. Add another one and you can have a radio. With one more you might have a computer or a TV. In other words, the solar generation could add to your life different consumer products. And you can also team up with a neighbour and build a small local grid.

Third, the technological advances are staggering. The LED light uses five to 10 times less energy than the old incandescent light. Chinese, Spanish and German subsidies have turned photovoltaic panels into a commodity with a rapidly falling price. What looked 10 years ago like a rich government’s game now is simply cheap. The cost of solar power is falling below new nuclear or gas generated power and even below coal, if you care to include into the electricity price the cost of all the environmental and health damage that coal causes.

South2North – The price of energy

Fourth, solar, and other renewable energy technologies do not need the hugely expensive power infrastructure required to bring the electricity generated by a nuclear reactor or a coal power block 2,000 kilometres to a poor African village.

Put these four reasons together and you will see that the traditional centralised power grid structure will lag far behind the economic and technological development of Africa. In other words, the off-grid electricity network will grow faster than the centralised energy economy. The centralised power grid economy will never be able to catch up with the faster growing off-grid economy.

By the time you secure financing for the 2,000 km grid to a remote village, it will have the LED lights at home and in school, chargers for mobiles phones, power for TVs and computers and mobile access to high quality education through the MOOC (mass online open courses) system.

And carbon free energy by no means stops at photovoltaic generation. Large parts of Africa offer excellent wind conditions. Micro hydro generation can also provide power that does not require a large power grid. There are already countries in Africa, like Rwanda, that are looking at a 100 percent renewable electricity option by 2020. According to Bloomberg New Energy Finance, this would be a much more economic option for Rwanda than relaying on fossil fuels.

If we want to help Africa, and the rest of the world, we should support the scaling up of a natural trend that would help Africa to leapfrog the carbon energy age. Last year, US President Barack Obama promised more than $7bn for the Power Africa programme. The money will most likely go into grids and conventional energy projects. Bad choice. But that could not stop Africa moving fast into the carbon free energy world. European political leaders should support the acceleration of this this natural economic development.

Africa never managed to build a proper telephone cable network. And it will never need it. The continent has nearly 500 million mobile connections and only 12 million fixed telephone lines. Something similar could happen with energy.

Julian Popov is a journalist, consultant, and a former environment minister in the last Bulgarian interim government.