How to plug renewable energy gaps

Electricity Sector Association of Kenya (ESAK) Vice Chairperson Juliana Kainga. [Courtesy]

Renewable energy, and energy transition generally, is one of the pillars of the upcoming Africa Climate Summit's green growth agenda.

It's not hard to see why.

Energy is a foundational sector and should be at the heart of Africa's development ambitions. And since energy, climate, and development issues intertwine, the world's focus is sharpening towards cleaner, sustainable technologies to combat the growing threat of climate change.

African countries, most of which face a confluence of challenges, including high inflation, unemployment, extreme climate events, and crippling debt crises, need bolder strategies to take advantage of renewable energy's socioeconomic opportunities.

Aside from delivering energy security and powering lasting growth, renewable energy can create up to five times more jobs than fossil fuels per dollar invested.

Africa is endowed with substantial untapped solar, wind, hydro, and geothermal energy potential, which, if developed, could be a game-changer.

Energy gaps

With 600 million people or about half of Africa's population lacking access to electricity, initial estimates indicated that the continent needed around USD133 billion every year in clean energy investment to meet its energy and climate goals by 2030, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA).

Committing to a greener development pathway could get us out of the woods sooner through a stronger focus on demand creation and an investor-friendly business environment.

Demand creation

African economies should promote the productive use of electricity (commercial and industrial demand) by supporting economic activities focused on the global race to net zero. These include e-mobility, green manufacturing, and niche technologies like green hydrogen development that is seen as a catalyst for decarbonising critical industrial processes like the production of fertilisers and the development of sustainable fuels. Africa is well positioned from a natural resource and demographic standpoint to benefit economically from these nascent industries.

Accessing these new demand centres will require investing in the expansion of the national grids by building new transmission lines, substations, and distribution networks. If recent events of national blackouts are to go by, there's an urgent need to make the grid systems not only resilient to the effects of climate change but also flexible enough to adjust in real-time to demand increases and to accommodate a diverse mix of green power.

Integrated energy solutions, enabled by smart power grids that combine the advantages of both centralised and decentralised approaches, could address an extended range of energy requirements across African societies.

Most of our renewable energy sources in remote areas are not adequately served by the grid. However, it's encouraging to note that a number of energy firms are deploying decentralised energy systems like mini-grids in rural areas ahead of the arrival of the national grids, and manufacturers are building renewable captive power plants to reduce production costs and increase the reliability of their power supply.

Strengthening national grids and setting a clear action plan for the interconnection of regional power pools will allow borderless accessibility of supply areas to demand points where this green energy is needed the most.

The upcoming Africa Climate Summit presents a good platform for deliberations and commitments on decades-long discussions around critical pan-continental grid infrastructure projects that would link East, South, Central, and West African power pools. Facilitating the movement of green electrons from high renewable energy resource areas to demand centres is crucial to lighting up the entire continent.

Investor-friendly climate

A more recent study estimates that Africa will need about USD250 billion annually to meet its green growth agenda. Governments cannot raise this sum alone; the private sector is expected to complement government efforts.

To ensure adequate climate finance flows into the continent, creating a favourable environment for investors is a first step in derisking renewable energy investments.

Out of the USD2.8 trillion that went into renewable energy between 2010 and 2020, only two per cent came to Africa, according to the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA). This could change if there is greater clarity on national energy and green growth plans backed by the right incentives, investor-friendly regulations, and policy frameworks.

The coming-of-age of renewables, in terms of technological maturity and increasingly favourable costs, should take Africa to energy security and reduce its dependency on more volatile sources.

The Africa Climate Summit should strive to install this bridge for the entire continent to make the crossing.

- The writer is the vice chairperson of the Electricity Sector Association of Kenya (ESAK)