Africa may not be responsible for the global climate emergency, but the continent’s energy sector needs to be part of the solution.
Although Africa cannot be blamed for the man-made climate change and global environmental damage that has taken place over the past two centuries, it is nevertheless experiencing some of the worst effects of it and there is a growing realisation that the continent has to play its part in the response. Sub-Saharan Africa’s carbon dioxide emissions have climbed steadily over recent decades as the continent’s population has grown, but they still only amounted to around 2% of the world’s total in 2014, according to data from the World Bank. On a per capita basis, they also remain modest, amounting to just 0.8 tons per head in 2014 compared to 16.5 tons in the US or 5.0 tons for the world as a whole.
While calls remain strong for the developed world to take on the majority of the work and cost of fighting global warming – and to clean up a mess largely of its own making – the voices of those saying that African states must also be part of the solution are growing louder. “It is in our own interest to act to salvage the economic fortunes of the continent, and, more so, to step up our collective efforts to fight decisively climate change,” Ghana’s President Nana Akufo-Addo told the Africa Climate Week meeting in Accra in March 2019.
“The recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report concludes that the global community has only 12 years to stop climate change and this requires us to deal with climate change more aggressively than we have in the past,” he said. It means that countries must do more to increase the use of renewable power and reduce the burning of fossil fuels in power stations – or in the case of the least-developed African nations, to ensure that the dirtiest fossil fuels do not become the go-to feedstocks as they ramp up their fledgling power sectors to back economic growth.
The key role of international development finance institutions, funded by the world’s richer countries, in backing this effort is apparent in their support for renewable energy projects of varying sizes across the continent. Some of these efforts to scale up power generation using sustainable renewable energy sources are covered elsewhere in this publication – the in-creased access to power permitted by village or household-scale solar power and grid-scale renewables is helping to solve Africa’s electricity access problems. And that gives countries a better chance of meeting UN sustain-able development goals by providing light by which children can read books or access the internet, or power to run agricultural machinery and health-care centres. Africans are also benefiting from the improved efficiency and cost of technology. For example, more efficient and cheaper solar panels can power highly efficient LED lights for much longer than would have been possible 10 years ago.
ACTIVE STATE INTERVENTION
Many African governments have bold commitments to implement their sustainable energy sector policies. The efforts of South Africa are perhaps the most important, given that the country’s coal addiction means it accounted for more than half of all sub-Saharan Africa’s carbon emissions in 2014. The drive by President Cyril Ramaphosa’s government to revitalise South Africa’s Renewable Energy Independent Power Producers programme promises to drag down the share of coal in the energy mix (see renewables article pox).
Meanwhile, countries such as Senegal and Mozambique are looking to develop efficient gas-fired generation, along with renewables, to expand their power capacity, based in part on gas reserves currently being developed in their waters. Although gas is a fossil fuel and therefore not as clean as renewables, governments argue that it offers a relatively cheap way to scale up power generation more rapidly, with far fewer carbon emissions and reduced levels of local pollution com-pared to coal- and oil-fired plants or small diesel generators.
Nigeria is also trying to get to grips with another area of climate change concern, stepping up measures to reduce gas flaring from oil fields across the Niger Delta region by encouraging gas demand for power and other uses. The country is the world’s sixth-largest emitter of flared gas, just behind Algeria, but has already made progress in reducing flaring. Nigeria flared some 7.6bn cubic metres of gas in 2017, down from 9.3bn in 2013, ac-cording to the World Bank. While power sector emissions globally may be higher overall than those from flaring, eliminating it is still important as the methane emitted from gas flaring is estimated to be around four times more potent as a green-house gas than carbon dioxide.
The Nigerian government has set a deadline of 2020 to eliminate all its gas flaring – 10 years ahead of the World Bank’s target to end flaring globally. Under the Nigerian Gas Flare Commercialisation Programme, incentives are provided to use the gas for other purposes and fines handed out offenders. And the Nigerian Sen-ate passed a bill that toughens up fines and ensures that new developments meet government design requirements in April. Eliminating flaring by next year seems unlikely, but such policies reflect a growing realisation by African states for the need to develop sustain-able energy sources.
INVESTORS SHY AWAY FROM COAL
It is not just governments that are applying pressure to make the switch to cleaner, sustainable energy. International development finance institutions, on which many African power projects depend for funding, have largely severed their ties with the most obviously polluting technologies. The last time the World Bank financed a coal project anywhere in the world was in 2010, with more than $3bn of support for the Medupi power station near Johannesburg. And it’s now harder to obtain fund-ing through capital markets too, as stakeholders encourage firms to adopt greener investment strategies. Most of South Africa’s big commercial banks have said they won’t support anything but the most efficient coal-fired power stations. Nedbank, First Rand and, reportedly, Standard Bank, have pulled out of financing the planned 557-MW Thabametsi and 306-MW Khanyisa coal-fired power stations in South Africa.
In April 2019, Standard Bank issued a statement laying out its position: “Standard Bank is committed to doing the right business the right way,” it said. “As such, Standard Bank sup-ports the adoption of higher efficiency, lower-emission coal-fired power plants, and carbon capture and storage technologies (where possible), to reduce the environmental and social impact of coal-fired power generation.”
The company said its future financing decisions for new coal-powered stations would be governed by parameters based on the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) guidelines for assessing the financing of coal-fired power generation based on a country’s energy poverty, technology and size of plant.
Climate change and sustainability: THE BIOMASS CHALLENGE
Just as important as driving the power sector towards sustainable energy use is the need to tackle energy inefficiency and the health-damaging pollution caused by the extensive use of biomass for home cooking in Africa. Cooking accounts for around 80% of residential energy use in Africa, excluding North Africa. And the number of people without access to energy-efficient cooking stoves continues to rise, with around 780m people across the continent cooking with solid biomass, according to the 2018 Africa Sustainable Development Report published by the Economic Commission for Africa (ECA).
“This number has grown by nearly 50% since 2000, as population growth has outpaced the number of people gaining access to clean cooking. Only around 25% of the African population has access to clean cooking solutions… the use of biomass is deeply rooted in rural areas, where around 90% of the population cooks with charcoal,” the report said.
Burning wood for cooking comes with health risks and is hugely inefficient. The economic downside of relying on traditional biomass in Africa is substantial because of the productive time lost – especially by women – through inefficient means of gathering fuel and cooking, the ECA noted. However, this cannot be resolved by small-scale renewable power in the poorest rural areas, even where it exists. While the concept of cooking using power generated from solar panels has been discussed for many years, it remains a challenge – albeit one that could be revolutionary if it can be mastered for mass consumption.
Mini- and micro-grids can provide power on a sustained basis due to improved panels, rechargeable batteries and equipment efficiency. But, for now at least, powering high-consumption household equipment such as electric stoves, heaters and freezers is generally not practical, given the limited generation and storage capacity of home solar and battery systems – even if rural Africans could afford the technology.
SOLAR ELECTRIC COOKING
Solar cookers are a low-tech alternative to burning charcoal and other biomass for cooking, but they cannot easily replicate all the uses of biomass cooking. In the short-term, liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) is still regarded as the main alternative to biomass for cooking in many parts of Africa. However, there are hopes that further falls in costs could make cooking using electricity generated from solar power more practical and that increased scarcity of wood for char-coal cooking as it gets used up could yet persuade rural families to move away from traditional cooking methods.
Research into the viability of solar electric cooking carried out for the UK government by consultant Simon Bachelor in 2015 suggested that, even with relatively conservative assumptions, the lifetime cost of a solar electric cooking sys-tem could be comparable to the two main alternative fuels – charcoal and LPG – by 2020. However, the report – Solar Electric Cooking in Africa in 2020: a synthesis of the possibilities – stressed that this does not mean that solar cooking would be affordable everywhere. “Context-specific policies, market conditions, service pro-visions and investment strategies will all affect the feasibility of the proposition in any given location,” it said.
The report also raised question marks over whether the rechargeable batteries needed to support solar electric cooking could develop fast enough to be suitable for extreme African conditions. The long-term performance of the most common lithium-ion batteries has tended to suffer in areas with high temperatures, but batteries with new technology are being tested that may yet prove suitable.
This article is an extract from the Africa Energy Yearbook 2019, a partnership between African Business and EnergyNet.