Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Energy politics in Africa

Most people in Africa are not on the power grid and most new investment in energy systems seems unlikely to change that much. Instead its just part of the expansion of global capitalism. That’s the main thesis of a radical new book ‘Electric capitalism: recolonization in Africa on the power grid’ David McDonald et al,

It provides plenty of examples to buttress its case- the most familiar perhaps being the giant 100GW hydro project planned for the Congo river and South Africa’s (now thankfully abandoned) nuclear ambitions- the planned expansion of nuclear capacity and the development of the Pebble Bed Modular reactor have been shelved .

Major grid-linked projects like this may help boost the economy and some the wealth created may trickle down, but it’s argued that decentral community scaled projects are often much more relevant. However, it’s claimed that at present efforts at deploying solar and other renewables are marginal at best- just small tokens.

The book provides not only detailed political analysis and case studies but also a laypersons guide to the energy options- large and small. It’s mainly focused on Southern Africa, which is where most of the industrialisation is going on, and where most research on alternative options has been done: for example see the excellent 2006 Earthlife Africa study by Banks and Shaffler which, the book says, claims that South. Africa could get up to 70% of its electricity from renewables by 2050, even assuming continuing growth in demand for energy:

That included large hydro, which this book doesn’t support. A more recent Earthlife analysis suggested that over 50% from renewables was feasible (400TWh p.a by 2050), with for example the potential for on land wind being put at 50GW, the wave potential at 10GW, and the solar potential being enough in theory to supply the needs of the whole country. See:

But this S. African focus means that the book doesn’t look at large scale Concentrating Solar Power and supergrid export issues in North Africa. That too could be seen as a neo-colonial exercise by EU companies, but it doesn’t have to be that way, although the large scale capital involved with CSP/supergrids and the role of the export markets for some of the power, may make it hard to control.

Even so, it’s clear that the conventional energy options are far less relevant than renewables for Africa- but progress will take money, and political commitment, not least to avoid exploitation.

Progress on the ground

There are some signs of progress, although so far the emphasis has mainly been on technology and the economic potential of renewables. ‘The solar radiation Africa receives could make this continent the Saudi-Arabia of the future’. That was a summary of the conclusions from the recent ‘Power Kick for Africa’ strategy workshop on renewable energy policies organised by the World Future Council Foundation, in cooperation with the Energy Commission of Ghana. It brought together representatives from utilities, regulators, industry and civil society from ten African countries who are determined to expand their cooperation under the umbrella of the African Renewable Energy Alliance (AREA).

In addition, the Africa-EU Energy Partnership (AEEP) and the EU, together with the African Union , recently launched a 10 year Renewable Energy Cooperation Programme (RECP), and announced a planned contribution of €5 million to start the programme. It includes proposal for:

* Building 10,000 MW of new hydropower facilities;

* Building at least 5,000 MW of wind power;

* Building 500 MW of solar energy

*Tripling the capacity of other renewables

* Raising energy efficiency in Africa in all sectors.

Some of these targets mat be rather low, but slowly practical projects are getting going, with solar PV and micro-hydro already quite widely used across Africa, being joined by wind power, so far mainly in the North- for example Morocco’ s Power utility ONE is building a 200 MW wind farm outside Tarfaya while Egypt is planning a 1GW offshore wind farm in the Gulf of Suez, and 7.2GW of wind by 2020. In addition to several CSP projects in the North (Morocco has just commissioned 22 MW hybrid gas/CSP unit, and Egypt is nearing completion of a €250m 150MW hybrid unit near Cairo) and the various renewable energy projects in South Africa, there is also progress elsewhere.

For example, Kenya , which has an installed energy capacity of about 1.3GW, currently gets over 60% of it from hydro. However climate change has made this erratic. Renewable Energy World reported that ‘the Kenyan government has recently re-evaluated its power policies and is now encouraging the use of renewable energy for both industrial and domestic use. It is not only offering incentives to companies to invest in renewable energy production, but it is also leading the way in a planned $8 billion capital injection into renewable energy generation’.

It’s claimed that Kenya has the potential to install over 2GW of renewable electricity capacity over the next 3 years under the green energy initiative led by the government, including about 800 MW of wind, and 500MW of geothermal, along with biomass and municipal solid waste.

KenGen has set up a 5.1MW wind farm in Ngong on the southern outskirts of Nairobi, and plans to erect a second 10 MW wind farm in the area. The African Development Bank has pumped over $400m into what at 300MW is set to be Africas biggest wind farm in - to be built in the northern frontier district of Turkana. According to the Nairobi- based UN Environment Programme, Kenya has potential for up to 3GW of wind, especially in the north. And Geothermal is another interesting option. Keyna’s long term geothermal potential is put at 7GW.The government has allocated $137.5m in fiscal year 2010/ 2011 towards the development of geothermal.

So, in countries like Keyna, the technology is there and some funding is flowing. But how all this will pan out politically, there and elsewhere, remains to be seen. In the past much of the input came from companies like BP who launched PV solar deployment projects, but more recently have retired from the field. Money inevitably is a key issue and, with that, come problems of political control. Much as anywhere else.

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