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Achieving Universal Energy Access in Africa

Achieving the goals of the UN SDG 7 and the Paris agreement in Africa will involve a combination of innovation and technologies, substantial investment in infrastructures and human capital as well as implementing regulations that will guide the process of migrating towards renewables.

By 2030, the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 7 aims to ensure universal access to affordable, reliable and modern energy sources, substantially increase the share of renewable energy in the global energy mix and double the global rate of improvement in energy efficiency. In addition to this, the Paris Agreement entered into force on the 4th of November, 2016 implored all member states to limit global warming to well below 2, preferably to 1.5 celsius compared to pre-industrial levels. 

Achieving the goals of the UN SDG 7 and the Paris agreement in Africa will involve a combination of innovation and technologies, substantial investment in infrastructures and human capital as well as implementing regulations that will guide the process of migrating towards renewables. This transition presents opportunities to African countries that are richly endowed with natural energy sources and if exploited rightly, would lead to economic growth, stable electricity and avoid the negative effects from fossil fuels. Although there are several barriers in achieving a smooth transition towards renewables such as inadequate development of energy infrastructures, high capital costs attached to energy projects, lack of financial and investment in energy projects, lack of technical expertise, weak regulatory and legal policies amongst many others, there are however enablers which can help Africa achieve the UN and Paris Agreement goals. The Renewable Energy Transition in Africa, jointly prepared by Germany’s KfW Development Bank, Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ), and the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) on behalf of the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ), explores how African countries can achieve universal energy access within the 2030 Agenda timeframe and identifies four areas of action namely:

1. Promote Access to Energy: 

A large percentage of Africans do not have access to electricity. Realistically, expanding the grid to all rural parts of Africa will be expensive and may not be cost-effective. There is, therefore, a need for innovative technologies and strategies to move towards energy transition.

2. De-risk and promoting private sector investments: 

The funds needed to improve the energy sector are far more than the funds available publicly. There is a need for funding from private investors as well as private-public partnerships. Unfortunately, there are many risks in investing in the African markets such as political instability, weak policy and regulatory frameworks, lack of transparency and institutional capacity and currency risk as a result of fluctuations in foreign exchanges. All these risks need to be mitigated to allay the fears of investors. An enabling environment needs to be created by improving regulatory frameworks, innovative financing instruments and identifying a pipeline of viable projects.

3. Strengthen and modernise the grid and ensuring that service providers are financially stable: 

Many African countries have inadequate grid infrastructures designed to accommodate conventional energy sources resulting in high electricity losses and low supply quality, among other issues. The poor technical state of many African electricity grids coupled with design issues as well as long low-voltage lines and the lack of preventive maintenance results in high transmission & distribution losses (mostly in distribution) and negatively impact the security of supply. In particular, many existing hydropower plants and electricity grids operate at reduced capacity due to a lack of maintenance and improper operations. The ageing poorly maintained grid and generation infrastructure in many African countries is also a barrier to the integration of more renewable energy in the electricity mix. There is a need to improve and invest in transmission and distribution infrastructures as well as energy storage and other technologies which will improve the security of supply and reduce emissions. In addition to improving and investing, there is also the need to maintain these infrastructures.

Service providers who ensure that electricity gets to the final consumers need to have sufficient funds to operate their infrastructures; if not, they end up providing poor and unreliable electricity to the consumers. Service providers are very important and cannot be ignored. There is the need for regulators to ensure that the electricity tariffs cover the expenses incurred by these service providers in transmitting and distributing electricity to help build economically sustainable electricity sectors with universal access and strong security of supply. 

4. Support systemic innovation: There is a need for a systemic approach to harness renewable energy potential in Africa. Innovative power generating technologies, such as renewable power systems which combine two or more technologies (e.g., floating solar photovoltaic and pumped hydro storage) also off-grid renewable energy systems, combined with innovative enabling technologies (such as green hydrogen, renewable energy mini-grids), as well as new business models, improved regulatory frameworks and system operation procedures should be adopted at scale. Innovative financing approaches such as local currency lending, results-based financing schemes or tailor-made challenge funds can also facilitate the energy transition, propelling economic growth and turning African countries into frontrunners in the global clean energy transition. Investments in innovative technologies like green hydrogen can also create economic opportunities along the value chain. Smart renewable mini-grids, digital technologies such as blockchain and business models such as peer-to-peer trading are innovations that can help to accelerate the realisation of universal energy access in Africa. Countries like Guinea, Ghana and Nigeria do have considerable hydro resources and can benefit from these innovations in modernising hydropower facilities and operating pumped hydro storage to integrate variable renewables and reduce the overall cost of the power system. Regionally, interconnected regional markets and super grids may support the plans for clean electricity corridors in Africa and economies of scale for particularly advantageous renewable energy sites. 

Electrifying the transport sector by using electric vehicles can address pollution in densely populated African cities. When considering future economic opportunities, the production, use and export of green hydrogen from low-cost renewable electricity in countries with abundant resources might be an option. Countries such as Morocco could use the advantage of geographical proximity to Europe to deliver green hydrogen to a larger market. South Africa has long-term experience in producing synthetic fuels from coal, which it can now turn to produce renewable electric fuels from green hydrogen. 

In conclusion, a successful energy transition would vary from one African country to the other, but will generally involve achieving universal access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy across the continent and fully harnessing the potential of renewable energy. These are highly ambitious yet achievable goals, ones that will require a global call to action. 

The African Union’s Agenda 2063 sets out the goals of mitigating climate change, broadening the policy space for sustainable development, eradicating poverty within a generation and building shared prosperity through social and economic transformation. Electricity is essential to achieving these goals. Some African countries are taking important steps in achieving a smooth energy transition. Countries like Morocco and South Africa are promoting technological innovation with hydrogen while some other countries are making substantial investments in solar PV and wind generation. There have also been several bilateral, regional and multilateral initiatives and programmes to address energy-related challenges in Africa. 

Africa’s development partners are already supporting numerous programmes and initiatives to make universal access to electricity and low-carbon, climate-resilient electricity sectors a reality across the continent. However, a comprehensive, renewable-based energy transition in Africa will require a broader, more joint initiative in line with each country’s needs.

Feel free to contact the Energy Transition Centre today for questions. 

·  Julius Moerder, Head of Energy Transition Centre [email protected]

·  Oneyka Ojogbo, Head of Energy Transition Centre, Nigeria & West Africa [email protected]

·  Leon van Der Merwe, Head of Energy Transition Centre, South Africa [email protected]