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Africa's energy needs: electrifying a continent

By       Message Henri Crespin       (Page 1 of 1 pages)     Permalink

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Petrochemical companies may well create "African quality" fuel, but their market on the eponymous continent has gotten a little bit smaller after Nigeria, Benin, Togo, Ghana and Cote d'Ivoire all recently announced that they were banning European fuel imports .

This came after the Dirty Diesel report published by campaign group Public Eye highlighted that many petrochemical products sold by European firms in the African market are inferior and much dirtier because of their sulfur content. The revelations about this "African Quality" fuel, as the petrochemical companies slyly termed it, could act as the catalyst for a much greater shift in Africa, which for some time has known that the only way to solve its many crises is by catching up with the developed world by leapfrogging and adopting cutting edge technologies without going through the motions. And one of the most burning issues Africans face now is putting a stop to its on-going power crisis.

Indeed, this isn't just a public health issue -- 60,000 people die every year from air pollution across the continent -- but an economic problem. In many parts of Africa, there is little choice but to use dirty fossil fuels as alternative electricity sources are all but none-existent. Many rural areas in Africa are isolated, which increases the cost of capital infrastructure for electricity and presents a logistical challenge to the governments and private sector companies trying to bring electricity to these populations.

As a result, sub-Saharan Africa has a real dearth of electricity. By any measure -- access, capacity or usage -- the sector is significantly under-developed. Sub-Saharan Africa is 13% of the world's population, yet is responsible for 48% of the global population without access to electricity. And there are few parts of African life that this does not have an impact on as lack of electricity leads to truncated lives and stunted economies.

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However, the scarcity of reliable, safe power sources in Africa provides an opportunity. Could Africa be the next big "leapfrogger" in the shift away from fossil fuels? There is already precedent for this on the continent. Mobile phone usage trends are one of the clearest examples of leapfrogging - many countries never went through the phase of being tethered by their landline, moving instead straight from no-phone to smart phone . And with its obvious advantages as an environment in which to deploy solar power, the conditions are right in Africa for it to leapfrog the West in the widespread adoption of solar power.

And, though entrepreneurialism isn't something typically associated with Africa, it actually has a huge pool of talent. Nowhere is this more evident than in Africa's informal economy . Necessity, they say, is the mother of invention. And Africa is a continent of small-scale inventors. It has a huge pool of indigenous talent, already highly experienced at creating whatever it is that their local market needs, whether it's water pumps or grass cutters. And what many markets need at the moment is reliable, clean, safe power.

For this reason, Africa is already witnessing the revival of a simple but effective technology for electricity production -- Concentrated Solar Power (CSP). This uses the sun's heat to create steam, and in turn electricity. Although a less streamlined process than other technologies such as photovoltaic cells, which can make electricity directly from sunlight, the energy generated by CSP can be stored for a few hours after the sun sets. Already, Africa hosts six of the 10 biggest CSP plants globally . And CSP isn't the only example of African countries embracing alternative sources of power.

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The Olkaria plant in Kenya is the biggest single-turbine geothermal facility in the world. Similarly, Ethiopia has its MW GIBE III hydroelectric project and its Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam is expected to generate 6,000 MW at full capacity when it is completed in 2017.

And electricity generation isn't just the domain of the major players. There are also a host of electricity generation start-ups popping up all over the continent. There's Off Grid Electric; founded in 2011 in Tanzania, it allows people to pay for their solar electricity using a mobile money service. There's also South African firm Shakti Energy, which, among other things, uses pedal power on generators to charge mobile phones and Nuru lights. And there's also Solynta Energy in Nigeria, which in 2014, set up Bakka Oil, the first solar powered filling station in Abuja.

The importance of start-ups like these to Africa's future is being recognized globally. At the UN Climate conference held in Marrakech in November, the US' foreign aid agency USAID announced the recipients of $4 million in new funding for African off-grid solar energy start-ups following the Scaling Off-Grid Energy: Grand Challenge for Development competition. It is hoped that this funding injection will help the solar start-up recipients to expand into new territories, test new business models and eventually access further private and public financing.

And there is huge appetite in Africa for increasing its knowledge of clean energy models in order to better deploy them across the region. For example, more than 20 African countries will participate at the Future Energy Expo 2017 in Astana -- a place where these nations will undoubtedly benefit from everything ranging from exposure to new ideas and technology to clean energy investment. The event will feature the world's top green energy projects at The Energy Best Practice Area and will count on the participation of more than 110 countries.

Africa is already in possession of a lot of potential in alternative energy production. It has a huge, untapped market, the entrepreneurial spirit to make things happen and the right natural resources. What is needed now is a concerted effort to bring all these things together and help power the continent for the next generation.

 

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