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An African energy transition is a necessity

Published on November 10, 2022
Africa is a vast continent with a young and growing population that will continue to industrialise in the coming decades. As a result, the demand for energy will increase. The question is, how do we achieve this concurrently with keeping it affordable and accessible where it is needed? Here, Lucy Thomas, Managing Director of the RSK Centre for Sustainability Excellence, explores this question in the context of Africa’s escalating energy poverty.

The International Energy Agency reports that 600 million people – 43% of the total African population – lack access to electricity; the majority of these are in rural areas. It is against this backdrop that the African continent is undergoing the fastest rate of urbanisation of any global region. As this growth occurs, so too will energy needs.

Consistently with other areas of technology such as mobile phones, Africa has the potential to leapfrog traditional energy sources and expedite the transition to renewables. For example, hydrogen-powered farm and mining machinery is being used in South Africa and hydropower has been used for decades across the continent. Many countries have solar power resources within their supplies, and together with increasing interest in geothermal and onshore wind, options are growing. For example, in Kenya, Lake Turkana Wind Power Station generates 310 MW of electricity, approximately 16% of the country’s current demand, with two further wind projects under way. Given the number of people and cities near coastal regions, the potential for offshore power is immense.

Even though there is great potential, the region still faces a challenge. Africa is a vast continent that will continue to industrialise rapidly, with a young and growing population. Therefore, the demands on energy will increase, by some estimates, more than three-fold. The question is how to satisfy this demand while keeping energy affordable and having it available where it is needed most.

Overcoming the energy challenge

Extending and upgrading the existing grid, particularly in urban areas and those locations close to existing grids, could prove pivotal in assisting access. For more rural communities, localised grids may be transformative. In areas of isolated but intensive energy demand such as mine, desalination or manufacturing sites, stand-alone systems might be appropriate.

We can use renewable technologies globally, but we need to think more broadly than just energy needs, as systems are interconnected. Sources of power could include waste-to-energy plants akin to biomass, particularly where decomposable material forms the majority of the waste, as this could address both energy and waste challenges. As coal mines in South Africa start to close, mine water could be utilised as a ground-source heating and cooling system as part of a district heating and cooling network.

The use of renewables needs to be considered within the context of the country, the specific needs of the region and with consideration of how climate change may alter the local climate in the future. For example, in some rural areas, where less rain is likely, could solar be used at a higher level to shade the ground below and enable crops to be grown and rainwater collected together with electricity production? In other areas, could taller vertical solar panels be economically viable where land is at a premium? As the cost of hydrogen decreases, could it also be a source of fertiliser? Would using wind and solar together at a local scale be more appropriate until battery storage becomes viable?

Several African countries use hydropower, an energy source that may be vulnerable with further stresses on water due to climate-change-induced altered rains and an increasing population and rate of industrialisation. Solutions to these problems are already driving this industrialisation: coastal liquified natural gas (LNG) plants are likely to form a significant part of the energy transition and are furthering the development of regional industries. But we must build these sites to be resilient to future flooding from increased sea level rise and more intense storms, which cause disruption to power supplies.

The affordability of energy is key, particularly with the increased demand we will see as the population grows. Using energy efficiently will need to be part of the solution. As climate change escalates further, there will be an increased demand for air conditioning in climbing temperatures and increased water stresses. This will bring about competing water and energy demands altering the reliability of hydropower, on which many areas of the continent rely. As previously mentioned, Kenya has already planned for this by reducing its dependence on hydropower through the diversification of energy sources.

Could innovations such as floating solar be used on the dams above hydropower plants to increase energy and reduce evaporation by as much as 20–30%? As the continent becomes more industrialised, manufacturing, installing efficient appliances and building to energy performance standards will become ever more important.

In addition to harnessing the power of solar, wind, hydro and geothermal sources, Africa has about 40% of the global reserves of the key minerals needed for batteries and hydrogen production, such as cobalt, manganese and platinum. Revenues from these minerals will increase, provided robust governance and infrastructure improvements take place while the environmental and social impact of mining is reduced.

Across the continent, we are seeing rapid increases in renewable energy projects. This growth in renewables will afford opportunities for Africa’s young population, not only in construction, operation, maintenance and demolition but also in research and development of new techniques and reuse to improve the circularity of the present waste challenge with renewables.

Most importantly, renewables offer the potential to lift many millions of people out of energy poverty, providing access to a vital resource. With robust environmental, social and governance, scaled energy infrastructure that taps into the wealth of natural resources outlined above will provide the continent with a secure, resilient and, most importantly, equitable energy system.

Discover more about the debates around renewable energy in Africa at COP27 by catching up on the RSK – COP27: Let’s #ActOnESG live event, which is available to watch below.

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Lucy Thomas

Group Chief Scientist, RSK Group

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Lucy Thomas, RSK’s Group Chief Scientist and Managing Director of the RSK Centre for Sustainability Excellence in Singapore and our businesses in Africa, is a Chartered Geologist and Specialist in Land Condition. She has over 20 years’ experience in the sustainable risk-based remediation of land, designing and delivering solutions for energy, property and manufacturing clients globally.

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