African renewables potential mapped

Some of the best potential for solar power is in the Sahara belt Copyright: European Commission Joint Research Centre

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Tapping into Africa’s renewable energy could transform living standards across the continent, according to a report that has mapped the potential of renewables in the region.

The report aims to help African governments set up renewable energy plans, and has called for the urgent transfer of relevant knowledge to research and technology partners in Africa.

"Only if much of the research, prototyping, demonstration and large-scale deployment are done by African people, one can accelerate the uptake of renewable energy," says the report, published by the European Commission Joint Research Centre (JRC) last month (8 February).

Renewable energy has particular relevance in remote and rural areas, where around 600 million people live without electricity, and where renewables would be cheaper than extending national grid services, the report says.                                                                                              

The authors used geographical data to map out regions that could generate electricity from the sun, wind, biomass and water. They then identified those regions where using renewables might be cheaper than existing sources such as diesel or electricity grids.

"We found good wind energy potential in North Africa and good solar energy potential in Sub-Saharan Africa and the Sahara belt," said the report’s editor, Fabio Monforti-Ferrario.

The report says small hydroelectric power plants would suit Equatorial Africa, where many people live closer to river systems than to existing electricity grids.  

Monforti-Ferrario added that "biomass is the ‘green gold’ of Central Africa", but cautioned against its widespread use on sustainability grounds.

Speaking more broadly, he said Africa’s ability to tap the potential of renewables potential is hampered by reliance on subsidised diesel fuel.

"It is the policy of African countries to keep the cost of diesel low, even though [this policy] is unsustainable. It makes the use of [alternatives like] photovoltaic systems unattractive to consumers," he said.

This view is backed by Dieter Holm, honorary board member of the International Solar Energy Society based in South Africa. But he said the report had focused too heavily on petrol subsidies, and not enough on the ability of renewable to create jobs.

Holm said that in Africa photovoltaics and wind energy can create 62 and 12 jobs per gigawatt hour of electricity produced respectively, compared to less than one job in the coal industry for the same energy output.   

"Political decision-makers in Africa should be well-informed of the overall potential of renewable energy sources in terms of electricity generation, job creation, and environmental sustainability," Holm told SciDev.Net.

Link to full report  [3.16MB]