What the Western World Can Learn From the African Continent

Much of the developing world is still heavily reliant on coal, and despite massive investments in alternative energy sources, a plethora of nations are still set to be prolific polluters. When it comes to the African continent, however, the future looks promising. Many of its countries are heading straight for clean energy electricity sources. This feat is possible on the continent due to the fact that overall Africa is home to around 600 million people without a source of electricity. Over 40% of Africans do not have access to electricity, and of those who do, only 15% have reliable access. This means that various governments can pick any energy source they like with little transitional legwork from one well-established energy sector to a less popular alternative.

Projects to innovate energy cannot come quickly enough for the continent. Across sub-Saharan Africa shortages of electricity are holding back economic growth by as much as 4% a year, according to the the World Bank. Businesses are forced to buy generators, paying 50 cents or more per kilowatt-hour, which is many times the cost of grid power.

It is not just businesses that are affected: the people are too. In Burkina Faso for example, multiple power outages a day is the norm and to be expected. Poor families are even harder hit. A new report by the Africa Progress Panel, a group of experts led by Kofi Annan, a Ghanaian who once headed the UN, asserts that more than 600 million poor people do not have access to grid electricity. They may spend as much as 16% of their income on energy and pay up to $10 per kWh for fuels such as kerosene or disposable batteries for cooking and lighting. This is about 100 times more per unit than people in the western world.

Another incentive for governments on the African continent to invest in renewable energy is that Africa has some of the world’s best untapped resources, such as huge rivers that are not yet dammed, sunny deserts and windy uplands. For years engineers have looked longingly at the Congo river where it plunges down the Inga falls, between Kinshasa, the Congolese capital, and the Atlantic ocean. This could be by far the world’s biggest hydropower station, generating almost 40,000 million Watts, 20 times what the vast Hoover dam in the United States produces. Now the World Bank is funding studies of how to dam it.

For these reasons, many African nations have started to invest in cheaper,more sustainable, fuels that can benefit both their economies and their environment. Much of the investment of African governments is going to renewable sources of energy. In 2010-12 Nigeria’s renewable power production posted the world’s fastest growth, at more than 15% a year, according to the World Bank’s latest assessment.

Across Africa a relatively simple technology is quickly gaining popularity. Concentrating Solar Power (CSP), uses the heat of the sun to make steam and in turn electricity. It can store some of the heat and keep producing power for a couple of hours after the sun sets. Africa is leading the embrace of this idea: it hosts six of the ten biggest CSP plants in the world. Several other types of renewable energy are being heavily invested in as well.

This dash for renewable energy could speed up even faster. Prices for solar panels have dropped by more than half in recent years and should keep falling.

Given the right regulatory environment and access to finance, Africa should leap ahead as one of the world’s leading producers of clean energy—making the continent richer as well as greener.

Amid the lack of leadership displayed by the United States on the issue of climate change, the African Continent takes in active role in leading earth to a greener future.

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