Collaboration between Africa and Europe can speed up progress on energy transformation
By Professor Emanuela Colombo
Africa is running fast towards its history, but the marathon is always a long-haul challenge, in which the way in which energy is mastered can make a difference between success and failure.
Energy is the lifeblood of society, but the energy-climate-development requires a good balance between over-exploitation of resources and their use for human activity. That is why Africa needs a sustainable energy system providing reliable, affordable and clean energy for boosting local socio-economic development to comply with the aspiration of the African Union’s Agenda 2063. At the same time, the world needs Africa to pursue its energy transition and globally comply with the United Nations’ 2030 Agenda, and the Paris Agreement’s pledges. Indeed, the energy strategies the continent will promote, may have a two-fold impact at local level on access to energy and domestic growth, and at global level on the speed and effectiveness of the global energy transition.
Nevertheless, even limiting our analysis to one face of the energy challenge, the power sector still today is not yet adequate, nor reliable in most African countries. Severe and frequent power shortages are threatening the empowerment of the agriculture and the industrial sector. Losses in poorly maintained networks are often twice the world average and contribute to reduce efficiency of transformation and to cause sales loss. Electricity tariffs are, in many cases, among the highest in the world and the increased use of private oil-fuelled generators as back-up facilities has further consequences on electricity, goods prices and on local environment.
Africa is rich in fossil and renewable resources. Bioenergy, hydropower, solar and wind power with geothermal resources in East Africa have a huge potential. In one of the most probable scenarios to 2040, electricity supply in Sub-Saharan Africa is expected to grow fourfold and generation capacity threefold. Solar photovoltaics will probably become the largest source in terms of installed capacity, overtaking hydropower as confirmed by some utility-scale projects which have recently entered service in Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya, Morocco and South Africa. Hydropower is also expected to grow and to play a major role in mitigating the average costs of power supply, contributing to phase out oil-fired power plants.
In this scenario, the inadequate energy infrastructure is still a crucial limiting factor where efforts and investment in network management, densification and extensions of the national grids are strongly required.
Indeed, infrastructure plays a crucial role for the future of natural gas. In order to transform the new gas field discoveries in Mozambique, Tanzania, Egypt, Mauritania, Senegal and South Africa into a stable source of income for the continent, strong domestic strategies are required to make the production effective, including building new infrastructure to support the growth of a domestic market at competitive prices.
In the resource perspective, Africa is due to play an additional strategic geopolitical role in the international arena as home to the production of many essential materials, such as platinum (80 percent), cobalt (66 percent) and manganese (0.5 percent), thus supporting the global energy transition.
The marathon Africa needs to complete to move away from its energy paradox and unveil its vast resource potential is more like an ultramarathon. This perspective, where each mile counts, offers Africa the right condition for promoting creative and native thinking.
This win-win paradigm can overcome the traditional dichotomy between centralised and distributed approach to electrification. Indeed the integration of, top-down infrastructure financed by the central government with national, international funding and capillary distributed in the country, with bottom-up off-grid solutions supported by rural agencies and implemented by local NGOs or private players can be the way to go as remarked also by the World Bank, International Renewable Energy Agency (Irena) and International Energy Agency (IEA).
Provided that proper regulatory systems are in place and rely on a combination of financial scheme-like auctions and feed in tariffs, to assure fair competition, efficiency and high quality of the supply, off-grid systems can be connected to the main grid once the extension will be complete.
This smart asset is flexible and resilient and may assure universal energy access to all in shorter time, promote local exploitation of resources, allow for higher penetration of renewable energy in the national mix, support innovation or adaptation of high quality technologies, foster productive uses of energy while preparing a more interconnected and integrated system at regional level with the right enabling policies and regulatory framework in place.
In this global challenge, Europe is willing to be more than a simple observer and to run side-by-side with Africa, serving as an expert ‘pacer’. The expertise Europe has achieved with the high share of renewable energy in the electric mix, and the capacity to master the requested flexibility, the continuous increasing of efficiencies for both generation and end use devices, the proper regulatory framework and the creation of the Council of the European Energy Regulators, the high aptitude toward research valorisation and innovation (initiatives such as Mission Innovation, and the European Union’s Horizon 2020) in the field of energy, are all assets that can contribute to assist African efforts.
Closer cooperation, mutual learning and co-design are needed to properly engage African ‘genius’ and support also native innovation in addition to the traditional imported innovation leading to technology adaptation. Positive signals in this direction come from the planned Horizon 2020 Green Deal call, which leveraging on previous experience, aims to refresh the EU-AU partnership for leapfrogging the clean energy transition in Africa and contributing to the challenge for carbon neutrality to 2050, when the European Green Deal and its implementation will serve as global benchmark.
—Colombo is a professor in engineering for co-operation and development