Africa’s renewable future – the coming energy revolution

June 5, 2015 2 By Duncan Green

Apologies for extra post today, but the guest posts and new papers are coming thick and fast. John Magrath, Oxfam researcher and renewable energy fan, celebrates a new report by Kofi Annan.JohnMagrath (1)

In Zimbabwe last week I was talking to a nurse at a rural health centre who described how the cost of two candles can be a matter of health or hunger, or even life or death. The health centre had no electricity, so expectant mothers were told to bring two candles with them to provide light for their delivery. Two candles cost a dollar, which is the same cost as going to the mill to get your maize ground into meal for a family’s dinner. Lacking a dollar, mothers-to-be naturally prioritised feeding their children over buying candles, and as a result, often left it too late to reach the health centre and gave birth on the road, at night.

The Oxfam programme in Zimbabwe has been installing solar panels at some health centres and schools, for lighting, pumping water and refrigeration, and has been pioneering a market-based system whereby people buy inexpensive but bright and robust solar lanterns. The results are impressive, including big increases in attendance at the centres and better health all Africa renewablesround. But such programmes are still a drop in the ocean. What Africa needs is an energy revolution, which is where a resounding new call from Kofi Annan comes in.

His Africa Progress Panel released its new report Power, People, Planet: Seizing Africa’s Energy and Climate Opportunities today. It is a stirring document (and well written as one would, since its lead author is ODI’s Kevin Watkins). In his introduction Annan rightly connects the climate crisis with the energy crisis. While temperatures rise, energy access for millions of people in Africa remain negligible. Thus far, he says, we have lacked the political leadership and practical policies needed to break the link between energy and emissions. But things are changing.

According to Annan: ” Africa is well placed to be part of that leadership. Some African countries are already leading the world in low-carbon, climate-resilient development. They are boosting economic growth, expanding opportunity and reducing poverty, particularly through agriculture. African nations do not have to lock into developing high-carbon old technologies; we can expand our power generation and achieve universal access to energy by leapfrogging into new technologies that are transforming energy systems across the world. Africa stands to gain from developing low-carbon energy, and the world stands to gain from Africa avoiding the high-carbon pathway followed by today’s rich world and emerging markets. Unlocking this “win-win” will not be easy. It will require decisive action on the part of Africa’s leaders, not least in reforming inefficient, inequitable and often corrupt utilities that have failed to develop flexible energy systems to provide firms with a reliable power supply APP Figure81and people with access to electricity…..Their challenge is to embrace a judicious, dynamic energy mix in which renewable sources will gradually replace fossil fuels”.

The report puts its finger on the problem – governance of power utilities: “Energy policy is at the heart of the opportunity. For too long, Africa’s leaders have been content to oversee highly centralized energy systems designed to benefit the rich and bypass the poor. Power utilities have been centres of political patronage and corruption. The time has come to revamp Africa’s creaking energy infrastructure, while riding the wave of low-carbon innovation that is transforming energy systems around the world”.

Africa, says the report, should aim for a 10-fold increase in power generation by 2040. And it pinpoints how to achieve it: “From an African perspective, renewable technologies have two distinctive advantages: speed and decentralization. They can be deployed far more rapidly than coal-fired power plants and they can operate both on-grid and off-grid”.

Amen to all that, but does the report truly plot a realistic, compelling path that will unlock this difficult win-win? I think there are two problems here. One is that despite its emphasis on renewables, the Panel is compelled to adopt an “all of the above” approach when it comes to meeting Africa’s energy needs. This is politically (and many would say morally) realistic, but, the trouble is that there are trade-offs between still powerful fossil-fuel interests and emerging renewables. And which message will Africa’s leaders pay most attention to?

APP Figure22For simply promoting renewables the report has highly practical suggestions; governments need to promote off-take arrangements, utility purchase arrangements and feed-in tariffs. However, the second problem is that when it comes to the entire energy picture the 182-page report runs a risk of being just too wide-ranging in its recommendations.  There is nothing wrong with any of them, but they essentially go far beyond energy alone and could be applied to every sector. They include investing 3-4% of GDP in energy sector development via reforming tax  administration to raise the tax to GDP ratio; ending tax evasion and stemming illicit financial flows; scrapping subsidies; regulating utilities; investing in agriculture and finding new models of planned urbanization.

If that reads somewhat like a reconfigured version of previous Human Development Reports, the APP report is especially urgent and topical in emphasising that the Paris climate summit in December is a crucial opportunity for the coming together of the climate and energy agendas. It calls for massive emissions cuts, an exit from coal, and carbon budgeting and pricing to mitigate climate change, and for developed countries to step up and deliver climate finance. A particularly interesting suggestion is for a “global connectivity fund” under the auspices of the Sustainable Energy for All partnership, arguing that “the SE4ALL remit includes supporting universal access to energy and increasing the share of renewables in the energy mix, but it lacks a bridge to financing mechanisms”.

Kofi Annan introduces the report (3m)