The Renewable Energy Transition in Africa: Powering Access, Resilience and Prosperity
Over the coming decades, the countries on the African continent can address fundamental challenges of energy access, energy security and climate change. Countries still suffering from energy poverty can achieve universal access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all by 2030, as set out in the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal 7, improving the livelihoods of hundreds of millions of their citizens. At the same time, Africa can harness its abundant potential of increasingly cost-competitive renewable energy to service growing demand for electricity and avoid a potential fossil-fuel lock-in. Even with efficiency measures in place, energy demand in African economies is expected to nearly double by 2040, as populations grow and living standards improve. By choosing sustainable energy sources over fossil fuels, Africa can create new jobs, experience greater economic growth and harvest social and health benefits while helping to mitigate devastating impacts of climate change.
African leaders have made clear their commitment to attaining inclusive and sustainable economic growth and development in the Agenda 2063: the Africa We Want. Achieving universal energy access is a critical underpinning of resilient and prosperous economies and societies and remains a top priority for African nations. Successfully transitioning the energy sector will depend on political leadership and ownership of the process. To support these goals, the international community should bolster support efforts and encourage accelerated action. This study looks at the current state of play and proposes pathways for such support.
Based on an analysis of the current state of the electricity sectors on the continent, this study identifies the main enablers necessary for countries to overcome a range of barriers to a green, inclusive energy transition in Africa. Furthermore, this study outlines the need for stronger coordination in promoting the energy transition, taking into account the specific political economy of respective national electricity sectors, and highlights four focus areas where a broader set of development instruments needs to be applied in order to create a new partnership between African governments and development partners.
This study argues that African countries, bolstered by active engagement from their partners and mandated continental and regional organisations such as the African Union, could seize the opportunity to leapfrog fossil fuel technologies and pursue a climate-friendly, needs-oriented power strategy aligned with the Paris Agreement and low-carbon growth. The levelised cost of electricity from solar PV decreased by 82 percent between 2010 and 2019, while the cost of onshore wind fell by 40 percent. This means that in 2020, renewable energy is in most cases the least-cost option for new electricity generation capacity globally. Technology solutions are abundant and ready to be deployed to meet Africa’s growing energy demand in an economically viable manner, while offering significant opportunities for job creation and industrial development. Importantly, energy-poor and unserved populations could get universal access to electricity. In fact, Africa’s estimated potential to generate renewable energy from existing technologies is
1,000 times larger than its projected demand for electricity in 2040, which means that the continent has more than enough
renewable energy potential to serve its future demand. Furthermore, renewable energy – including green hydrogen – could replace African exports of coal, oil and gas. This potential is far from fully harnessed at this point. In 2019, 72 percent of the new electricity generation capacity added globally was renewable. However, only 2,000 out of almost 180,000 MW of this new renewable power were added on the African continent. The rest of the world is increasingly transitioning towards renewable energy-based electricity systems – and Africa has the opportunity to do the same.
Energy transitions can be part of a strategy for a clean energy future, forward-looking industrial development, inclusive social progress and human welfare. IRENA’s Global Renewables Outlook: Energy Transformation 2050 shows that decarbonising the global energy sector is more than fuel replacement. It is a means of job creation – renewables alone would account for 45 million jobs in 2050, exceeding today’s 40 million energy jobs worldwide. Global GDP would be 2.4 percent higher with renewables-based energy transition, opening ample avenues for industrial development. African countries can thus leapfrog into a sustainable, secure energy future – one that fosters equitable human development and protects both livelihoods and the environment.
Accelerating energy transitions across Africa
Technology developments, falling costs for renewable energies, innovative approaches, network effects and digitalisation
are opening new opportunities and making an indisputable business case for renewables. With abundant indigenous resources, Africa is well placed to leverage this potential. However, the potential and availability of cost-effective technologies alone are not sufficient. Seizing this opportunity will require strong political will, attractive investment frameworks and a holistic policy approach to fully reap the benefits of renewable energy. It also means that current average annual investments in the African energy system must double by 2030 – to approximately 40-65 billion USD. In this context, the investments made to address the severe economic consequences of the COVID-19 crisis in Africa must spur the continent’s transition towards a sustainable energy future. A relapse into unsustainable economic patterns, as happened around the world after the 2007/2008 financial crisis, should be avoided. The new partnership for the renewable energy transition in Africa, as outlined in this study, aims to support a green economic recovery.