It will take a “decarbonization shock” to jolt utilities and governments in Africa into a quick transition to renewable energy this decade that avoids investments in fossil fuel projects that will lock the continent into a future of high-carbon development, warns a report this week in the journal Nature Energy.
Any solution will depend on changes in the way renewable energy projects are developed and financed during a decade in which the continent’s electricity production is set to double, Bloomberg Green reports. If present trends continue, two-thirds of that increase will come from fossil fuels.
“While that’s down from about 80% of generation today, the continued growth of new, polluting power plants will lock in harmful carbon emissions for decades,” Bloomberg writes. “And although the continent’s carbon footprint is small compared with that of Europe, Asia, or North America, that could change as the population continues to grow rapidly and economies industrialize further. Currently, per-person electricity use among Sub-Saharan Africa countries is one-tenth that of the UK.”
“If you now double power capacity and do so building fossil fuels, these plants will run for 30, 40 years,” said study co-author Philipp Trotter. “If you do it now, then for the foreseeable future you’ll have these carbon emissions there. There isn’t time to delay this further.”
While the continent can still shift the outcome, “the deeper you go into the planning and construction stages of projects, the harder it would be to turn it around at large scale,” added co-author Galina Alova. “So it’s really important to act really fast.”
Up to now, “there has been a widely-shared view that African countries would ‘leapfrog’ directly to renewable energy sources, and away from old-world coal, oil, and gas,” the BBC writes. “This has already happened with communications, where countries have invested in cellular technology and over 90% of people across the continent have access to a mobile service.”
But with African utilities planning 2,500 new power plants over this decade, “the authors say that less than 10% of the new power generated will come from wind or solar,” while fossil fuels continue to dominate the supply mix. That conclusion is based in part on the assumption that solar energy projects will be more likely to fail as they scale up. BBC says the authors see South Africa installing 40% of the continent’s new solar capacity by 2030, but anticipate a failure rate for power plants in the Central African Republic and Gabon exceeding 80%.
“These findings point to high carbon lock-in risks for Africa, unless a rapid decarbonization shock occurs leading to large-scale cancellation of the fossil fuel plants currently in the pipeline,” the report states.
Bloomberg points to the disparity in renewable energy development between Africa and developed economies, due to obstacles ranging from political constraints to lack of infrastructure. While countries like Egypt, Kenya, and South Africa have been laying plans to increase their renewables capacity, the entire, sun-baked continent has less installed solar than the United Kingdom.
Bloomberg cites an end to fossil fuel subsidies, an effective carbon price, and shifts in international financing as steps that would tilt the balance toward renewable power development.
“Internationally, we’re still using development finance for fossil-fuelled plants,” Trotter told BBC. “The U.S. is heavily investing in natural gas plants in Africa. If you redirect the majority of these funds to renewables, that is when you can really kick-start them. That’s especially important for a technology like wind, which hasn’t really taken off yet in Africa.”