Africa’s green energy potential is waiting to be tapped

green energy Concept
(Photo: Envato Elements)
The sudden jolt in global oil prices is raising fresh concerns about African decarbonization efforts. As Western countries have embraced net-zero carbon targets through investments in renewable energy infrastructure and other initiatives, Africa has lagged in setting similar goals. While the continent is blessed with many forms of renewable energy, it is not blessed with capital, infrastructure, or even political will in many places to kickstart a shift away from fossil fuels. Will record-high oil and gas prices be the spark that ignites a transformation?اضافة اعلان

The short answer is no. A viable renewable energy transformation is unthinkable for many of the continent’s largest countries because of the exorbitant cost of shifting to renewables and the government barriers that keep costs high. Even with record prices, it’s still cheaper for African leaders to continue relying on fossil fuels than to switch to renewables.

South Africa, the continent’s most industrialized country, is a perfect example of the decarbonization challenges. More than 90 percent of South Africa’s energy comes from non-renewable sources, with coal making up the lion’s share. Countries in North Africa also derive more than 90 percent of their energy from fossil fuels, while those in Central Africa get more than 80 percent of their energy from renewables. South Africa’s ailing fleet of coal-burning power plants desperately need repairs, but there is not enough money to make them — thanks to a decade of corruption and government mismanagement.

The result has been crippling rolling blackouts that are forecast to get worse in the coming years. The situation is more remarkable considering the abundant sunshine and wind power that typifies South Africa’s climate. Despite this profusion, the South African government has been reluctant to grant new tenders out of fear that the revenue for the national electric utility will simply dry up. It’s an unnecessarily complex situation that speaks to a deeper issue affecting several African countries.

In a published response to a recent Financial Times article on the barriers to net-zero targets in Africa, Fadhel Kaboub, president of the Global Institute for Sustainable Prosperity, and Mohamed Adow, founder and director of Power Shift Africa, noted that Africa can’t decarbonize without decolonizing.

“(Africa) must prioritize the manufacturing of renewable energy infrastructure, agricultural equipment, water and sanitation equipment, as well as public health, education, and transportation infrastructure,” they wrote.

“These are the conditions that allow Africa to decolonize and decarbonize its economy while avoiding the traps of external debt, structural deficiencies, fossil fuel-stranded assets, and green neocolonial ‘development’.”

While the continent has seen explosive urbanization and historic connectivity rates through greater internet access, there has not been the emergence of a viable middle class or the growth in African manufacturing. Robust manufacturing fueled Western growth and has been a key ingredient in the rise of non-Western economic powers, such as China, India, and other so-called “Asian tigers”.
Energizing local economies through investment in manufacturing will lay the groundwork for decarbonization because it will provide the capital needed to make the shift.
Five years ago, I wrote that if African countries want to free themselves from the remnants of colonialism and establish healthy economies, leaders must get serious about manufacturing. That point is more valid than ever. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, the next generation of Africans desperately needed jobs. By 2050, Africa’s population will almost double to 2.5 billion. The tried and tested path to independence is a robust manufacturing sector that absorbs many workers. Mass production offers workers pathways from working class to middle class and even to higher management that no other sector can match.

Manufacturing does not need to be focused on heavy industries, which require large amounts of fossil fuels. While much of the West was being vaccinated against COVID-19, many African countries had to wait because there was no significant vaccine production on the continent. This is slowly starting to shift, but more can be done.

However, there will be little change without political commitments within and between African countries. With so many people wanting to free themselves from the legacy of colonialism, investment in manufacturing as a path to independence must be made easier. African politicians need to get out of the way by enacting manufacturing and trade-friendly laws, ending the corruption that curbs innovation, and building the infrastructure required to trade with neighbors.

Energizing local economies through investment in manufacturing will lay the groundwork for decarbonization because it will provide the capital needed to make the shift. While renewable energy infrastructure is getting cheaper, it is still expensive for struggling emerging market countries. A manufacturing boom like what occurred in China or India would provide the funds to make such a shift possible. The impressive part of such a transformation is the sheer potential that is locked in African markets.

Off Cape Town’s southern point, just 10km into the South Atlantic, lays a virtually limitless amount of wind energy. Several energy analysts have told me that the wind resources are so vast that if they were harnessed and translated into energy, South Africa would have in wind what Saudi Arabia has in oil. Building the offshore infrastructure to capture this wind is an expensive task that requires international cooperation and the willingness of the South African government to embrace renewable sources. It will take some time before those points align, but the potential for a greener Africa lies waiting just offshore.

The writer is the former senior editor of Exponential View, a weekly newsletter about technology and its impact on society. He was also the editor-in-chief of emerge85, a lab exploring change in emerging markets and its global impact.

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