Energy security was one of several issues debated during the 2012 U.S. presidential election, with both candidates advocating for increased domestic supplies of fossil fuels as a means of bringing greater energy security. Although renewable energy was given much less play, a number of scholars, political leaders, businesses and international and domestic organizations have concluded that renewables can play a critical role in improving a country’s energy security as well as reducing or constraining greenhouse gas emissions. This is particularly important for poorer countries that do not have the fossil fuel endowments, or the wealth, to make increasing fossil fuel production and/or imports a realistic strategy. This article focuses on what renewable energy can do—and is already doing—for the people of sub-Saharan Africa and the role that wealthier countries, companies and individuals can play in bringing greater energy security to the region. Although I focus here on Africa, many of the findings and arguments apply to other world regions. Before discussing renewables, we need to define what we mean by energy security. Although the concept has been around since countries started trading with each other, and became fundamental to national security discussions with the rising demand of oil for industrialization as well as war-making, most current discussions move beyond traditional definitions of security to include four key concepts: availability, reliability, affordability and sustainability.
In developing countries, energy security is often focused on electricity for the general population. One in five people in the world (1.3 billion) lack access to electricity in their homes and businesses and live in “energy poverty.” Nearly 40 percent rely on coal, charcoal, wood or animal waste to cook their food—all sources of toxic smoke that causes lung disease, killing nearly two million people annually, most of them women and children. Modern energy sources and infrastructure would allow people in remote areas to participate in more advanced economic activity and to receive health, education and other services, as well as clean water and safer food. With electricity, farmers can store their products, allowing them to move from subsistence living to saving enough to make a profit and reinvest in agriculture, in turn increasing food supplies for the local population. These first small steps in development can become significant moves away from poverty.
Electricity access varies significantly between and within regions and between rural and urban areas within countries. As a region, sub-Saharan Africa has the lowest percentages of access to electricity, ranging from 24 to 32 percent; rural electricity access averages a dismal 8 percent. This compares to Latin America, for example, with 91 percent access. Despite growth of 70 percent in electricity generation in the period 1998-2008, 85 percent of the region’s population still relies on traditional biomass, mostly wood, for its heating and cooking needs.
In the last two decades, in low- and middle-income countries, investment in energy accounted for 30 percent of foreign direct investment in infrastructure (which also includes telecommunications, transportation, and water and sewage). In sub-Saharan Africa, only 10 percent of its infrastructure investments went toward energy. This compares to 44 percent in South Asia, 39 percent in East Asia and the Pacific, 35 percent in Latin America, and 22 percent in the Middle East and North Africa. Furthermore, sub-Saharan Africa received less than 4 percent of global private investment in total infrastructure. In its 2012 Global Power & Utilities Survey, Pricewaterhouse Coopers notes that Africa is expected to bear the greatest impact of the 2008 global financial crisis in terms of declining private investment. Clearly, sub-Saharan Africa faces significant energy security challenges.
Renewable energy (RE) is one of the keys to solving these challenges in Africa. By definition, RE includes energy generated from sources that are naturally replenished in the short term, notably the wind, sun, water and biomass, including both centralized and decentralized (also called distributed or off-grid) options. Worldwide, renewables comprise 19 percent of power generation. Hydro is the dominant form, accounting for 84 percent of renewable energy power generation.
Depending on a country’s endowments, RE can affect all four of the components of energy security.
- Availability: In some countries, renewable energy sources—wind, sun, water and biomass—are far more plentiful than fossil fuels.
- Reliability: Abundant renewable sources may be more reliable than imports from neighboring states. Even in those states with their own significant fossil fuels, renewable sources may help fill gaps in availability, thus increasing the reliability of energy.
- Affordability: Once considered too expensive even for wealthier countries, renewable energy is increasingly affordable around the world. For example, a number of studies have shown that solar energy is much cheaper than diesel, which is prevalent in sub-Saharan Africa. In addition, the price of wind turbines has fallen significantly in the last few years.
- Sustainability: By definition, renewable energy sources are more sustainable than fossil fuels.
Decentralized energy (DE) and RE are often linked together. DE is a strategy used by many developing countries to get energy to the people, especially in rural areas, without having to invest in expensive grids and power plants. In addition to being less expensive to build, DE increases efficiency by reducing lost heat. According to the World Alliance for De-centralized Energy, DE is “electricity production at or near the point of use, irrespective of size, technology or fuel used—both off-grid and on-grid.” Not all decentralized energy options use renewable energy, and not all renewables use decentralized systems. However, in many cases, the two are allied. Consider solar photovoltaic panels, roof-top or local wind turbines, small-scale hydropower, geothermal energy, solar-powered fuel cells, biomass-fired engines and micro-turbines. In addition, DE generation using renewables is less vulnerable to massive power outages and the ensuing use of expensive and unhealthy diesel, which can cost up to 5 percent of a country’s GDP, a problem affecting more than 60 percent of the countries in sub-Saharan Africa.
If you look only at overall statistics, you might be fooled into thinking sub-Saharan Africa is awash in RE. However, much of the RE is from traditional sources—wood and sometimes animal dung. The challenge is thus to move to modern sources, such as solar and wind, and more advanced and/or sustainable forms of biomass, such as industrial waste, plentiful cassava and invasive thorn trees. Sugar-producing countries can use bagasse, the pulp byproduct from sugar cane, for power and heat. Sub-Saharan Africa has the greatest bioenergy potential as a result of large areas of suitable cropland, unused pastureland and low productivity of land under agriculture.
Numerous modern RE projects are underway in sub-Saharan Africa. Kenya, Mauritius, Tanzania, Uganda and Zimbabwe all have grid-connected bagasse plants. Although progress has been slow, biomass power plants are now planned or under construction in Cameroon, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Liberia, Nigeria, Rwanda, Senegal, Sierra Leone and Sudan. Kenya plans to meet 50 percent of its electricity needs with geothermal energy by 2018.
The African Development Bank recently committed $145 million to one of Kenya’s projects, and the World Bank along with French and Japanese development agencies have given $500 million in loans and grants. Djibouti, Eritrea, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda are also developing geothermal options. South Africa’s Department of Energy recently concluded the second round of bids for 19 RE independent power projects for 1,044 megawatts of power using a variety of technologies, including photovoltaic, wind, small hydro and concentrated solar power.
The World Bank’s International Financial Corporation and Norwegian developer Scatec Solar have plans to build utility-scale solar parks in west and central Africa. In South Africa, Scatec Solar is building a plant the size of 140 football fields that will be among the largest in Africa. Ghana, which has an admirably high percentage of access to electricity—72 percent of the population—passed a renewable energy law in 2011. It plans to install 15,000 solar systems in rural areas by the end of 2013 to help it reach its goal of universal energy access by 2020.
Some of the regional economic groups have helped support renewable energy projects. Most importantly, the 15-member Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), one of the world’s most important regional trade groups, has its own ECOWAS Center for Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency (ECREEE). ECREEE has worked with its partners from the Global Bioenergy Partnership, which includes public and private entities in a number of countries from around the world, including the United States, and several UN-affiliated organizations, such as the UN Development Programme. In November 2012, ECREEE, IRENA (International Renewable Energy Agency), and ARE (Alliance for Rural Electrification) held the first International Off-Grid Renewable Energy Conference in Ghana.
Renewable energy projects are not risk-free. They present a number of political and economic challenges that cannot be ignored. First, government-driven initiatives require significant research, policy-making and managerial capabilities, which many of the poorer states may not have. Even China, with its strong central government, has made significant errors in wind and solar power, resulting in more than 30 percent of the wind generation capacity lying idle while solar photovoltaic panels were overproduced.
Second, some of the renewable options are more expensive to develop and will require their own infrastructure. Government incentives are thus required to force producers to invest in renewables and to get consumers to use the renewable energy sources. Feed-in tariffs—which set prices for renewable energy provided to the grid—are the most widely used policy instruments for promoting renewable energy. Other policies include quota-based incentives, financial/tax-based incentives, and direct investment from the government. Although these can be effective, if not applied properly, they can result in cost overruns and inefficiencies and instabilities in the system.
Third, large-scale biomass industry can create a number of economic, social and environmental problems. Using land to grow crops for fuel rather than food can alter domestic food prices and may displace small shareholders. Industry may negatively affect areas with significant biodiversity, undermining other environmental and sustainability goals. As shown from Brazil’s ethanol program, modern bioenergy can create significant waste products, which must be dealt with.
Fourth, citizens may question how many jobs RE will create. For example, in South Africa, the powerful Congress of South African Trade Unions expressed concern that not enough of the jobs would go to South Africans. REN21—Renewable Energy Policy Network for the 21st Century—notes in its 2012 annual report that case studies have shown “significant potential for off-grid projects to create jobs and enhance local economic productivity, particularly in the sales, installations, and operations and maintenance stages of the value chain” (p. 26). If this finding continues to be supported by research, RE advocates will need to educate the population about this benefit.
The problems are there but research, sound policy and education can ameliorate or overcome many of them. Renewable energy provides an excellent opportunity for companies, scholars in engineering and the social sciences (especially economics, political science and sociology), and national groups and individuals to work together to help solve energy security challenges in Africa, bringing electricity to hundreds of millions who currently live without the energy necessary to give them a better and longer life.
Dr. Hancock (PhD, UCSD) is an Associate Professor at the Colorado School of Mines. She directs the Masters program on International Political Economy of Resources and teaches courses on international political economy, political risk assessment, and Russia and Eurasia. Her current research focuses on renewable energy in Africa.