Fossils fuels to lead as Africa doubles its energy capacity this decade


Much has been said about the vital role of solar in bringing reliable electricity to developing economies and rural populations across Africa. While there have been plenty of encouraging developments, many countries still have a long way to go.

And for renewable energy specifically, the situation is similar – in many parts of Africa small rooftop PV systems have proved vital in plugging the energy gap for underserved communities, and development funding has flooded the renewables sector, enabling many projects to go ahead in regions that might otherwise struggle to find investment.

At the same time though, recent analysis of energy developments in Africa points to national utilities wary of renewables as a threat to their business model, inaction on the part of governments, and a lack of financing options as factors holding back the development of renewable energy. These trends are borne out in new research from Oxford University in the UK which looks at planned, completed and abandoned electricity projects in 54 African countries, to try and paint a picture of the continent’s future electricity mix.

Fossil fuels dominate

The study, A machine-learning approach to predicting Africa’s electricity mix based on planned power plants and their chances of success, published in Nature Energy, forecasts that electricity generation capacity across Africa will double by 2030, with 269 GW set to come online. More than half of this new capacity is expected be fossil fuel powered, with non-hydro renewables representing 17.4% of new projects and just 9.6% of generation.

“Africa’s electricity demand is set to increase significantly as the continent strives to industrialize and improve the wellbeing of its people, which offers an opportunity to power this economic development through renewables’ says Galina Alova, study lead author and researcher at the Oxford Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment. “There is a prominent narrative in the energy planning community that the continent will be able to take advantage of its vast renewable energy resources and rapidly decreasing clean technology prices to leapfrog to renewables by 2030 – but our analysis shows that overall it is not currently positioned to do so.”

Improving landscape for solar

Despite the continuing trend towards fossil fuels, Alova’s analysis finds that the prospects for solar projects in Africa have improved significantly in recent years, with more projects successfully developed. “Our results suggest steep learning curves for recent solar projects as both the number of planned plants and their commissioning success have sharply increased,” the paper states. Across Africa 49 GW of new solar is expected by 2030, with almost 40% of this to be located in South Africa. The country will reduce the share of coal in its energy from 75% to 49%, with solar growing from 4% to 24%.

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The report expects an overall reduction in the dominance of fossil fuels across Africa from 80% today to around 60% by 2030, though noting that the hydro projects comprise much of planned new capacity, and these already have the lowest success rate of any fuel type, and will face further challenges from climate change in the coming years.

Policy shift

To ensure a larger role for solar and wind, the authors state that major a shift in policy and planning will be necessary. “The development community and African decision-makers need to act quickly if the continent wants to avoid being locked into a carbon-intense energy future,” says Oxford University researcher Philipp Trotter. “Immediate re-directions of development finance from fossil fuels to renewables are an important lever to increase experience with solar and wind energy projects across the continent in the short term, creating critical learning curve effects.”

By outlining the factors that have been central to the success or failure of recent energy projects, the paper’s authors hope the study will be able to contribute to energy planning and reducing the level of risk associated with renewables projects. And their work has already received praise from the government in Namibia:

“We welcome this study and believe that it will support the refinement of strategies for increasing generation capacity from renewable sources in Africa and facilitate both successful and more effective public and private sector investments in the renewable energy sector. The more data-driven and advanced analytics-based research is available for understanding the risks associated with power generation projects, the better.” said Namibia Water Minister Calle Schlettwein. “Some of the risks that could be useful to explore in the future are the uncertainties in hydrological conditions and wind regimes linked to climate change, and economic downturns such as caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.”

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