World Power: How Africa can leapfrog the world with renewable energy.

Nature looks into the future of Africa and sees a sunny outlook – at least as far as solar and wind power generation go:

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.

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”.

The source of Zambia’s energy woes is the worst drought in southern Africa in 35 years. The nation gets nearly 100% of its electricity from hydropower, mostly from three large dams, where water levels have plummeted. Nearby Zimbabwe, South Africa and Botswana have also had to curtail electricity production. And water shortages might get worse. Projections suggest that the warming climate could reduce rainfall in southern Africa even further in the second half of the twenty-first century.

Renewable energy could help to fill the gap, because wind and solar projects can be built much more quickly than hydropower, nuclear or fossil-fuel plants. And green-power installations can be expanded piecemeal as demand increases.

Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya, Morocco and South Africa are leading the charge to build up renewable power, but one of the biggest barriers is insufficient data. Most existing maps of wind and solar resources in Africa do not contain enough detailed information to allow companies to select sites for projects, says Grace Wu, an energy researcher at the University of California, Berkeley. She co-authored a report on planning renewable-energy zones in 21 African countries, a joint project by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) in California and the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) in Abu Dhabi. The study is the most comprehensive mapping effort so far for most of those countries, says Wu. It weighs the amount of solar and wind energy in the nations, along with factors such as whether power projects would be close to transmission infrastructure and customers, and whether they would cause social or environmental harm.

The amount of green energy that could be harvested in Africa is absolutely massive, according to another IRENA report, which synthesized 6 regional studies and found potential for 300 million megawatts of solar photovoltaic power and more than 250 million megawatts of wind.

South Africa is setting a good example. In 2011, it established a transparent process for project bidding called the Renewable Energy Independent Power Producer Procurement Programme (REIPPPP). The programme has generated private investments of more than $14 billion to develop 6,327 megawatts of wind and solar.

Mainstream Renewable Power has won contracts for six wind farms and two solar photovoltaic plants through REIPPPP. “This programme is purer than the driven snow,” says O’Connor. “They publish their results. They give state guarantees. They don’t delay you too much.” Although the country’s main electricity supplier has wavered in its support for renewables, the central government remains committed to the programme, he says. “I would describe the risks in South Africa as far less than the risks in England in investing in renewables.”

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