Clean energy for Africa? Think communities not continent

Africa needs country-based evidence to shape its clean energy futureto transition to low-carbon sources to suits local conditions, resources and needs in different economies and communities. Youba Sokona, Yacob Mulugetta and Philipp Trotter report

Africa requires clean-energy technologies for countries to achieve their development and climate goals. However, the starting points, pathways and challenges for that transition look very different for each African nation.

Research suggests that African energy systems are well-placed, technically and economically, to achieve a high share of renewables. Making that shift will drive growth, create jobs, cut the risk of stranded fossil-fuels infrastructure and improve resilience to and minimise damage to health and environment from climate change.

However, African countries face diverse and uncertain pathways to make that transition, in terms of speed, cost and technology mix.

Based on our new research, as a group of 40 African and 14 international authors, we urge the global community to drop the unhelpful generalisations and to consider Africa’s energy futures country by country.

Diverse starting points
Our research took a deep dive into four very different countries; Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Mozambique and South Africa.

In Burkina Faso, rural areas’ electricity access stands at less than 5 per cent. Here, hybrid solar PV-diesel systems will drive cost-efficient development. Countries that share these conditions include most of the Sahel region and Madagascar.

Ethiopia is already a green-growth powerhouse with 90 per cent hydropower, and cheap solar and wind resources that support further development. Kenya and Namibia share similar opportunities.

Other African countries, including Mozambique and Nigeria, have substantial natural-gas reserves and are considering long-term commitments to exploit them but could yet focus on renewables instead.

Meanwhile, there are entrenched fossil-fuel interests in South Africa, Botswana and many northern African countries that could contest the transition to clean energy. Here, the question is whether the transition offers the social and economic compensation to get businesses and workers on board.

What African countries have in common is their thirst for energy, to unlock opportunities for national development. Although the African continent is blessed with rich and varied energy resources, most countries face large gaps in equity and access to energy generation.

The sluggish pace of energy-system transformation reflects the long lifespan of energy infrastructure. The decisions policymakers take about energy systems today will shape African countries sustainable development long-term.

National leaders need the best possible information on which to base their economic, social and environmental goals. Currently this isn’t the case.

Africa’s energy future is hotly debated. But that debate reflects geopolitical interests, not countries’ own context-specific climate and development realities. The Global North has dominated African energy conversations for decades, shaping countries’ techno-economic priorities and policy choices.

Now, African countries face growing pressure to make a rapid transition to renewables, in some cases nudged on by technology-specific access to finance.

However, recent actions by European and North American countries particularly since the war in Ukraine highlight the gap between policy and practice. Countries that pledged ambitious decarbonisation strategies have rushed to expand their natural-gas infrastructure, to meet short-term domestic demand.

Do as I say
Several current and planned fossil-fuel projects are in Africa. Many African stakeholders have called out the double standards and Global North decisions that expose the Global South to climate impacts, while reneging on global financial pledges and delaying loss and damage payments.

European countries’ repositioning may be a short-term reaction to new political emergencies, not a departure from decarbonisation. Germany has set itself a binding net-zero target to reduce natural gas usage by 30 per cent in the next eight years and up to 90 per cent by 2050.

But it leaves some African countries to double down on new natural-gas fields built predominantly for export. That creates policy tensions between the long-term economic and social risks that come with fossil-fuel extraction and trade-offs with net-zero aspirations.

What development benefits will exploiting this gas bring to African people? Three decades of natural-gas projects have done little to improve energy access in sub-Saharan Africa. Countries in sub-Saharan Africa that have significant natural-gas reserves have slightly lower electrification rates than those without.

Our research shows we need a more informed, granular debate about energy pathways based on different countries’ different circumstances and on African development needs. Energy-enabled sustainable development in Africa demands urgent action in four areas; energy geopolitics, policy, finance, and finally, research and local capacity building.

Seeing Africa as a single entity dominates both sides of the natural-gas-versus-renewables debate. As we’ve pointed out, there are significant variations across countries energy systems and exposure to energy poverty, resource endowments and costs of capital, skills and capabilities.

Instead of a global debate based on generalisations, we need a nuanced, analytical assessment, country by country, of the synergies and trade-offs between climate and development objectives.

Better policy approaches
We need consistent, long-term energy and development strategies to tackle country-specific uncertainties and to build stakeholder confidence. Policy must focus on the areas in each country that are least certain how to transition.

And so South Africa’s priority may be to build a just transition from coal to cheaper renewables. Other countries, standing at a natural-gas crossroads, need evidence to choose the most suitable energy-system strategies. They need multifaceted risk-and-return assessments of opportunities for value-added economic growth, risks of stranded assets and impacts on trade, jobs, skills and social wellbeing.

Whichever energy pathways countries choose, Africa requires more and more tailor-made finance. International financiers must provide suitable, transition-specific financial instruments to support the power generation different countries choose.

The transition to renewables demands mobilisation of capital. Investing in renewables is capital-intense up front and the scale of the transition is immense.

Capital must be derisked to bring down its cost in Africa. We must understand what drives capital’s high costs institutional quality and macroeconomic challenges, the depth of the financial sector, energy regulation and utilities’ corporate finance issues – and cut those costs by building knowledge and institutional trust at home and leveraging developed countries’ public and blended financing vehicles.

Finally, we must harness science to build a solid, detailed evidence base to guide all African countries towards the most suitable energy pathway. This should give priority to the countries facing the most uncertainty – and national and international research-funding organisations must support this.

Having that evidence and support is crucial for if leaders and decision-makers to choose energy pathways that maximise their own countries’ short-term and long-term development.

Prof Youba Sokona is vice-chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Yacob Mulugetta is a professor of energy and development policy at University College London. Philipp Trotter is a research associate at the Smith School of Enterprise, Oxford University and assistant professor at the University of Wuppertal

This story was first published in The Environment magazine in April 2023

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