The scale of the challenge for the African energy sector is well known. The World Bank estimates that in rural areas around one in three Africans have no access to electricity--that compares to 13% for the world as a whole. Even where communities do have access to grid electricity, the supply may be unreliable or unaffordable.
It is now generally accepted that renewable energy will play a major role in solving the energy access challenge--national energy policies across the continent are increasingly prioritising the need to develop solar and wind projects to replace fossil fuels and reduce the reliance on erratic hydropower.
This has encouraged ambitious propositions for increased renewable energy use in Africa, which while challenging, don't look as far-fetched as they once were.
The International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) believes Africa could meet around half of its electricity generation requirements from renewable energy by 2030 if the investment is forthcoming.
There is the potential for renewable energy capacity totalling 310GW to be in place by the end of the next decade, seven times the 42GW capacity available in 2017, the agency says. If that could be achieved, not only would electricity access improve, it would also result in carbon-dioxide emissions reductions of up to 310 megatonnes a year.
The economic and health benefits would be significant, says IRENA in its January 2019 report, Scaling Up Renewable Energy Deployment in Africa.
The renewable energy sector already employs 10.3m people globally, so millions more jobs could be created in Africa. Increased access to electricity, especially in more remote areas, would improve productivity and spur economic growth. Health would improve through the improvements in healthcare services that power would bring, and because of the reduced exposure to polluting fuels, such as diesel from generators and kerosene used in lamps.
Assessments of the solar and wind potential available in Africa confirm that the resources are there, IRENA says. But there's a caveat--achieving such an expansion in renewable energy is estimated to require an average $70bn a year investment.
The national climate change commitments and power-sector policies of governments on the continent indicate that, at best, only around half of the hoped-for 310GW of renewables could emerge if those plans were realised, the agency said in 2017.
However, countries such as Ethiopia, Kenya, Nigeria and Rwanda are now taking a more positive view of the role of renewables, incorporating their development both as part of utility-scale grid power and at the off-grid level into national energy policy.