How Africa could leapfrog fossil fuels to clean energy alternatives
Revolutions are, as a rule, rare and momentous processes. But across the African continent the potential is ripe for a clean energy revolution that upsets and leapfrogs the old fossil-fuel order.
Globally, clean energy technology has developed at a rapid pace, and costs have plummeted – so much so that a predominately clean energy future that brings energy access to all is not only possible, but even profitable.
Africa has within its reach a future that creates a homegrown, robust, clean energy economy that keeps jobs and money on the continent. Not only will this help prevent the harms and pollution of a fossil-fuel-intensive economy, but it can also save significant amounts of money on energy costs.
Those ready to embrace a clean energy future will find resistance from the fossil-fuel industry. The industry will say that a clean energy future is not affordable or feasible – claims echoed by people like the controversial political scientist Bjorn Lomborg and even Bill Gates.
In step with the fossil-fuel industry, they argue that Africa can’t do without massive amounts of fossil fuels if it is to tackle poverty and develop. But a different future is possible.
Energy for all
Consider, for instance, the International Energy Agency’s Energy for All scenario for 2030.
The International Energy Agency projects that achieving universal electricity will increase the 2030 electricity demand by about 4% above the base case level. This is in a base case scenario where in 2030 close to one billion people still remain without access to electricity.
Only 35% will come from fossil fuels under the scenario because of grid extension costs associated with providing access to rural residents who make up 84% of those without access to energy. The rest will come from renewable generation sources such as hydro, wind and solar.
Bringing even more clean energy online is possible. As the Carbon Tracker Initiative highlights:
… the rapid emergence of renewable energy has made it likely to move Africa to a future dominated by cost-effective renewable, low-carbon electricity.
For instance, the International Energy Agency’s 2°C compatible Hi-Renewable Energy Scenario shows that Africa can generate more than 80% of its electricity from renewable sources by 2050. This requires significant upfront investment. This is where the support of rich historical polluter nations like the US is important. It is also what’s being demanded by climate justice.
But in the medium-to-long run, the costs are approximately offset by fuel cost savings, never mind all the other social and economic benefits that come with clean energy.
The International Energy Agency is also renowned for consistently underestimating both the speed with which clean energy can be scaled up and its cost-effectiveness.
In fact, a high renewable energy future could result in significant economic savings and growth for the African continent. The Solutions Project run by Stanford University’s Marc Jacobsen has developed a path to 100% renewable energy for South Africa by 2050. The project predicts that this would lead to annual energy savings of US$549 per person. Combined with the health and climate cost savings, it adds up to US$6682 saved per person.
Fossil fuels are falling away
Renewable energy is growing at a rapid pace, partly because clean energy costs continue to plummet. Onshore wind is already competitive or cheaper than other fossil fuels. Solar is set be cost-competitive with coal power in 80% of the world by 2017.
Energy expert Amory Lovins points out:
worldwide, renewables in fair competition (no subsidies and no corruption) generally cost less than any other new electricity source and many existing ones.
That includes South Africa’s nuclear plans.
The country’s Centre for Scientific and Industrial Research has shown that wind is already providing energy that is 40% cheaper than coal. Collectively the study shows that wind and solar saved South Africa R4 billion from January to June in 2015.
Energy poverty is primarily a problem for those living in rural areas who make up 84% of those without access. That makes coal even more expensive when adding the significant grid extension costs needed to access rural communities. Clean energy, on the other hand, is a more distributed form of energy which can avoid those significant costs. In Jigar Shah’s words, evidence from around the world suggests that:
… energy is starting to look a lot like mobile phones as distributed solutions leapfrog outdated and ineffective centralised networks.
There are multiple choices ahead for Africa thanks to the rapid rise of clean energy. Compared to the fossil-fuelled status quo, clean energy has the ability to distribute power more equitably, provide cheaper energy, more energy access, cleaner air and water, and create many more jobs.
It is time to embrace the potential of a clean energy revolution.