Africa

A new study reveals how renewables could power Africa by 2040

Africa has the potential to get 76% of its electricity from renewable sources by 2040 by fully utilizing hydropower, solar, and wind plants.

Africa has the potential to get 76% of its electricity from renewable sources by 2040 by fully utilizing hydropower, solar, and wind plants. Image: Pexels/Mark Stebnicki

Christiane Zarfl
Professor for Environmental Systems Analysis, Faculty of Science, University of Tübingen
Rebecca Peters
PhD candidate in Environmental Systems Analysis, Faculty of Mathematics and Natural Sciences, University of Tübingen
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Africa

This article is part of: Centre for Energy and Materials
  • 76% of all electricity required on the continent could come from renewable resources by 2040.
  • A new database called the Renewable Power Plant Database Africa provides information on existing and planned renewable energy projects.
  • While hydropower has been the main renewable energy source, solar and wind are becoming more affordable.
  • Sharing electricity and data across borders is crucial to ensure a stable renewable energy supply for all African countries.

Over half of Africa’s people – about 600 million – lack access to even the bare minimum of electricity. The tough question to answer is how access can be extended without adding to global warming by relying on fossil fuels.

We – a team from Rwanda and Germany who work in the field of renewable energy scientific modelling – set out to find the answer by building the Renewable Power Plant Database Africa, the first on the continent. It’s a database of available open access data on hydro, wind and solar energy sources that we’ve analysed.

The database shows that some countries, such as Nigeria and Zimbabwe, have enough projects in the pipeline to potentially transition away from fossil fuels by 2050. And that 76% of all electricity required on the continent could come from renewable resources by 2040. This would happen if the capacity of existing hydro-, solar and wind power plants were fully utilised and if all plants currently on the drawing-board were built.

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The 76% from renewables would be met by 82% hydropower, 11% solar power and 7% wind power. Hydropower has been the main renewable energy resource to date, but declining costs for solar photovoltaics (90% decline since 2009) and wind turbines (55%–60% decline since 2010) mean solar and wind have potential to lead sustainable renewable energy options.

We conclude that combining the advantages of hydropower with wind and solar would be a more sustainable alternative to hydropower alone. And that hybrid solutions would be the best option.

But none of this can happen unless countries are willing to get into transnational electricity sharing arrangements. In addition, providing openly accessible and location specific data is fundamental for the development of an integrated sustainable renewable energy mix.

What the data says

We compiled the publicly available records of 1,074 hydropower, 1,128 solar and 276 wind power plants into one database. These were both existing and planned plants. We included the location of each proposed plant for all African countries.

We then integrated the data into a harmonised and updated database. This is the first comprehensive overview of renewable energy plants in Africa that includes their geographic coordinates, construction status and capacity (in megawatts).

This database shows that some countries have enough projects in the pipeline to potentially transition away from fossil fuels.

The Aswan Dam (the largest in the world) Egypt, Africa.
The Aswan Dam (the largest in the world) Egypt, Africa. Image: Getty Images/Jose A. Bernat Bacete

Hydropower is used by Eswatini, Angola, Djibouti, Gambia, Cameroon, Tanzania, Lesotho and the Democratic Republic of Congo as a major or main source of renewable electricity.

Other countries, including Egypt, South Africa, Algeria, Libya, Cape Verde, Morocco and Tunisia, are lagging behind in renewable energy development. These countries are highly electrified and their economies depend strongly on fossil fuels.

We found that hydropower could more than double to 132GW. This would happen if those plants that have already had feasibility studies carried out were built. The Aswan High Dam has an installed capacity of 2.1GW and generates most of Egypt’s energy. So 132GW would be enough to provide power for several countries.

However, hybrid solutions are more likely to provide reliable electricity to a growing population in a changing climate. The cost of wind and solar power is dropping while a recent analysis concluded that barely any hydropower will be profitable after 2030. If hydropower is not a favourable option under future climate change scenarios, wind and solar will be able to step in.

Hybrid power plants that generate a combination of renewable energy are another option. A promising example of this is the installation of floating solar panels on existing reservoirs.

Share electricity, data and experience across borders

To meet the demand across Africa, we recommend the following.

Firstly, that there is international electricity sharing between African countries. This is the only way to ensure a renewable electricity supply to all countries.

Secondly, African leaders must also move away from economic driven development and integrate the different interests from people involved or affected, such as local residents, the general population, and governmental and non-governmental organisations. In the past, the land-intensive expansion of renewable power plants has caused conflicts with farmers, national parks and industries.

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Thirdly, renewable energy development must include the interests of different people involved or affected by new energy projects, such as local communities and the general population. In the past, the land-intensive expansion of renewable power plants has caused conflicts with farmers, national parks and industries.

Fourth, governments must share experience across borders to avoid mistakes such as damming the Nile River for hydropower. The Aswan High Dam, for example, disturbs the transport of sediments down to the delta of the Nile, threatening the highly biodiverse wetlands and inducing shoreline erosion, putting humans at risk.

The Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, currently under construction, is a recent prominent example of the need for cooperation and river management across borders, especially when facing potential impacts of climate change like droughts on the efficiency of the hydropower plant.

Fifth, we call for a general rethink on how data is managed. All data should be shared and openly accessible across the world. Countries need to share high-quality data, including data about their power plants. High-quality data is key to analysing the different routes that electricity development should take across the continent in future. Such projections are only as good the knowledge and data they are based on.

African countries that follow this route will be global role models for a renewable energy transition.

The World Economic Forum actively tackles the multifaceted challenge of the energy transition through several key initiatives. One crucial initiative, the Mobilizing Investment for Clean Energy in Emerging Economies (MICEE), recognizes the critical role emerging economies play in achieving global net-zero targets. MICEE bridges the significant funding gap by convening experts to discuss solutions and catalyze action for clean energy investment. Complementing this focus on investment, the Clean Power, Grids, and Electrification initiative tackles the broader challenges and opportunities of the energy transition. It prioritizes rapidly increasing clean energy production, aiming to triple renewable energy production by 2030 and a staggering nine times by 2050.

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Related topics:
AfricaAdvanced Energy SolutionsEnergy Transition
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