With prices for renewables dropping, many countries in Africa might leap past dirty forms of energy towards a cleaner future.
At the threshold of the Sahara Desert near Ouarzazate, Morocco, some 500,000 parabolic mirrors run in neat rows across a valley, moving slowly in unison as the Sun sweeps overhead. This US$660-million solar-energy facility opened in February and will soon have company. Morocco has committed to generating 42% of its electricity from renewable sources by 2020.
Across Africa, several nations are moving aggressively to develop their solar and wind capacity. The momentum has some experts wondering whether large parts of the continent can vault into a clean future, bypassing some of the environmentally destructive practices that have plagued the United States, Europe and China, among other places.
“African nations do not have to lock into developing high-carbon old technologies,” wrote Kofi Annan, former secretary-general of the United Nations, in a report last year1. “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.”
That's an intoxicating message, not just for Africans but for the entire world, because electricity demand on the continent is exploding. Africa's population is booming faster than anywhere in the world: it is expected to almost quadruple by 2100. More than half of the 1.2 billion people living there today lack electricity, but may get it soon. If much of that power were to come from coal, oil and natural gas, it could kill international efforts to slow the pace of global warming. But a greener path is possible because many African nations are just starting to build up much of their energy infrastructure and have not yet committed to dirtier technology.
Several factors are fuelling the push for renewables in Africa. More than one-third of the continent's nations get the bulk of their power from hydroelectric plants, and droughts in the past few years have made that supply unreliable. Countries that rely primarily on fossil fuels have been troubled by price volatility and increasing regulations. At the same time, the cost of renewable technology has been dropping dramatically. And researchers are finding that there is more potential solar and wind power on the continent than previously thought — as much as 3,700 times the current total consumption of electricity.
This has all led to a surging interest in green power. Researchers are mapping the best places for renewable-energy projects. Forward-looking companies are investing in solar and wind farms. And governments are teaming up with international-development agencies to make the arena more attractive to private firms.
Yet this may not be enough to propel Africa to a clean, electrified future. Planners need more data to find the best sites for renewable-energy projects. Developers are wary about pouring money into many countries, especially those with a history of corruption and governmental problems. And nations will need tens of billions of dollars to strengthen the energy infrastructure.
Still, green ambitions in Africa are higher now than ever before. Eddie O'Connor, chief executive of developer Mainstream Renewable Power in Dublin, sees great potential for renewable energy in Africa. His company is building solar- and wind-energy facilities there and he calls it “an unparalleled business opportunity for entrepreneurs”.
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