Can Africa Leapfrog Right Into Renewable Energy?

With over a billion people and counting, Africa’s energy demands and how they will be met are a high priority for many organizations. While other nations are trying to deal with their old coal-fired plants, much of Africa could potentially leapfrog over the rest of us and go right into renewable energy sources. At least, that’s the hope. Determining how to actually do that has spawned many studies and reports, the latest one from the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) in Nairobi.

The UNEP report points to governments’ critical role to put policies into action that facilitate private sector investment in energy markets. To overcome the major obstacles of cost, structure, and risk, and realize Africa’s potential for renewable energy, there needs to be a solid commitment from each nation—and soon.

Africa Solar Energy

image via UNEP

To meet Africa’s growing energy demand, the UNEP estimates that Africa’s power sector needs to add 7,000 megawatts of new capacity each year. The study’s authors believe the potential is there—according to the African Development Bank, Mauritania’s wind energy potential is enough to meet almost four times its annual energy needs, while Sudan could meet 90 percent of its own needs—but the issue is how to realize it.

As is true for many things, cost presents one of the greatest barriers to development. Facing fossil fuel subsidies and lack of financing, renewable energy development requires governments to create policy incentives that reduce high costs and make clean energy more competitive with traditional sources.

As an inspiring example, the report looks to the Kenyan government’s success when it introduced a feed-in tariff in 2008 to encourage renewable energy development, generating incentives for 1300 megawatts of energy generation—more than doubling Kenya’s current capacity.

Another major obstacle involves the structural issues of Africa’s energy markets, where monopolies keep out new players and innovation. To overcome this, the UNEP encourages government policies that decentralize the market and ensure easy access for new renewable energy producers.

To discuss these obstacles, 400 scientists and experts met in a “Foresight Panel” at the UNEP headquarters in Nairobi. UNEP Executive Director, Achim Steiner, expressed hope that the conversation would continue at the upcoming United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, Rio+20, taking place in Brazil at the end of June.

Angeli Duffin is a Midwest transplant currently living in San Francisco, CA. Kicking off her career doing product design and development with Fair Trade artisans around the world, she then moved on to the editorial side, writing for eBay’s Green Team blog and working as a marketing consultant for social and environmentally minded companies