Can Africa Capitalize On Cheap Solar Energy?

Can Africa Capitalize On Cheap Solar Energy?

According to PV Magazine, researchers at Oxford University have noted that Africa’s energy demand is likely to double by 2030. Since renewable energy sources are so inexpensive, Africa may find it more economically viable to go green. The continent’s countries don’t have the ingrained dependence on fossil fuels that other more economically developed nations display, which could be a blessing in disguise. With the lower overall cost of renewables, it makes sense that the country would look at technologies such as solar energy to help with its energy needs. However, there are several other factors to consider when examining Africa’s energy generation profile and what the future holds.

Predictions Seem Grim

A paper in the journal Nature Energy suggests that the continent’s renewables contribution to their overall energy generation would be less than 10% by 2030. The study considers the existing factors that may affect the continent’s nations and uses machine learning to predict how the future of energy generation in Africa might be. The connotations of this finding are grim – Africa might end up in the same “lock-in” scenario as more developed nations if they decide to go this route. Lock-in has been the largest impediment to renewables finding a foothold in developed countries. The study examined the factors affecting the dependence on fossil-fuel generation plants. These include ownership, connection type, capacity, and fuel. For fossil-fuel-based plants, the output is more, and the cost of raw material is negligible compared to the capacity of the electricity they can create. In small countries, where funding these plants is a concern, solar and other renewables don’t seem like a viable option when fossil fuels are so cheap and readily accessible. The impact on the world at large might be even more significant.

Developing Nations and Pollution

The Center for Global Development notes that most of the world’s pollution comes from less economically developed countries. The world’s governments are well aware of the impact of climate change on their populations. Between unpredictable and devastating weather patterns as well as imminent climate change, as a result, countries are looking at ways to lower their carbon footprints. Yet, the countries doing the most to achieve that goal are developed ones. Developing nations, like those in Africa, don’t have the money to invest in experimental technology. They prefer looking at “tried and true” methods of energy generation and industrialization. These developing nations are playing catch-up with more economically developed countries, and the established industrialization and electrification processes are what they prefer to follow.

In 2015, one hundred and ninety-five sovereign nations vowed to cut their carbon emissions to deal with global warming. To date, the goals that they set back then haven’t been achieved. In fact, estimates state that, for the world to hit its goals set back then, the global carbon emissions value would need to drop by 2.7% yearly between 2020 and 2030. Since the developing world seems to be ramping up its growth and using technology to close the gap between itself and the developed world, the demand for energy among this subset of countries has never been higher. However, this demand relies heavily on electricity produced by fossil-fuel-powered plants. The result is that we’re unlikely to see the necessary drop in emissions if these countries are to retain their level of growth.

Cost-Effective Alternatives Exist

Africa’s growth and development shouldn’t be put on hold. The continent has spent a lot of its past working to overcome its economic and political instability, and a stable electricity supply is crucial to its industrialization. Established plants already take up the continent’s demand, but with an expected surge in development happening soon, there will be an increase in demand. Investors responsible for funding these power plants see the use of fossil fuels as a “sure thing.” The costs and maintenance (as well as returns on investment) are easy to calculate. Renewables are a mostly unknown quantity, and investors aren’t willing to take the chance.

The cost of renewables is already one of the best reasons for investors to reconsider. Over the years, the price of the hardware used in solar, wind, and other renewable energy generation has decreased. Solar, in particular, has seen a renaissance of low-cost equipment becoming available. Research into solar cells has become more prominent as NASA tries to find ways to efficiently convert solar energy into usable electricity for their extraplanetary missions. In the last few decades, the cost of panels has dropped drastically, making them affordable for even individuals who want to run an independent electricity supply in developed nations.

The issue that solar power tends to have is that it depends on large portions of land to erect panels and needs a significant amount of capital to upgrade the panels once new technology comes out. While fossil fuel plants might go through upgrade cycles every so often, just like getting a dental implant, solar panels are an emergent technology, and new panels can be significantly more efficient than older ones, demanding upgrades for the company to stay relevant. The initial construction costs may be less, but the long-term consideration of maintenance might be a lot more than traditional fossil fuel plants.

A Disruptive Movement in Solar Power

One of the most exciting developments in the field of renewables in Africa is small companies that are doing miniature supply plants spaced out around the continent. These smaller projects make it easier to distribute the risk instead of placing it in a single plant. For smaller companies, this is ideal since the failure in one area won’t negatively impact other areas. These small firms may not compete with the massive power plants, but they are likely to make inroads into their dominance and offer them an alternative if their primary fuel source dries up.

Uncertainty Creates Instability

For now, power plants can get cheap fossil fuels to run their turbines, but how long will this last. Oil prices have stabilized, and a glut in the natural gas markets makes plants more economically feasible now. However, there’s no guarantee that the price will remain at this spot. Developing nations are moving away from fossil fuels, making them more abundantly available for developing countries. However, these fossil fuels are still a non-renewable resource, and as supplies dwindle, prices will shoot up. The cost of fossil fuels now is unsustainable, and that uncertainty may lead to instability in the electrical supply. In a developing nation, this could spell disaster for international investment. Renewables are a far better long-term solution, but unless the upcoming fossil fuel generation plants get canceled, the continent risks facing the same “lock-in” syndrome that developed nations like the US need to grapple with.

Finding The Balance

Cheap power is a boon to economic development. The most affordable power over the long term (so far) is fossil fuels. However, there’s no guarantee that this will remain that way. Sourcing materials to keep these plants running may become too exorbitant before too long, forcing them to shut down and leaving many without electricity. According to Change With Solar, solar power costs have dropped by up to 89% within a decade, suggesting it’s a viable alternative to fossil fuels for developing nations. The long-term maintenance costs may be more taken from today’s standpoint, but the benefits aren’t just economic. Africa has the unenviable task of balancing its sustainability with its economic development when one is likely to endanger the other.