Africa and the Energy Revolution

After the second world war, the US and the USSR, two of the key allies that ensured that the tides of the war were turned in favour of common sense, ended their relationship beginning a new era in the history of humanity that we know today as the Cold War.

Selling-solar-panels-in-Africa-Courtesy-Azuri-technologies-621x350.jpgPart of the by-products of the cold war’s arms race was the significant achievement of putting a man in space which was won by the Russians and later on the race to the moon which the US may or may not have won. The space race was important not just to the parties involved in the Cold War but to the entire world as it more than definitely put the prospects of warfare through the eyes of intercontinental ballistic missiles bearing nuclear warheads right in front us. Someone sitting in Russia could press a button and launch devastation that could take out Ghana, Togo and Benin Republic; all that without even putting down his cup of tea, or shot of vodka – whichever is more appropriate. The Cold War made the rest of the world potential collateral damage of an arguably needless conflict and in recognition of this fact (also coupled with the 1986 Chernobyl Disaster in Ukraine)(Lowe, 2013), made sure the rest of the world did everything possible to quell a reality of nuclear proliferation. Today, nuclear energy has been put to more productive use than weaponry as it helps generate power for domestic use and industrial growth. However, a new kind of race is upon us, one that looks very likely to hold more contestants than just the US and Russia and one that holds even greater rewards than bland domination; one that concerns who and who would show up to that great party that we know today as the future.

For countries like Nigeria that are acutely dependent on the trade of fossil fuels for sustenance, the reality that fossil fuels like crude oil, coal, etc. are so rapidly going out of fashion is bad news. Sadly enough, that reality does not seem to have sunk in. Among many African Governments, one could argue that only a handful of people understand the imperatives associated with this development and even fewer might be able to steer opinions towards a brighter and more sustainable direction. Anthropologists argue that fossil fuels as sources of energy have peaked and are very unlikely to reach price or usage levels that have been seen in the last decade. The race for new sources of clean energy is by no means slowing and the willingness for adoption is growing even faster especially as the dangers of evironmental calamities like global warming become increasingly apparent. Renewable energy sources that range from solar to wind; wave and geothermal; nuclear fission as well as huge leaps in the field of fusion are breaking records in terms of generated quota and economic impacts globally. The search for new and cleaner sources of fuels for sustainable energy has had many countries and corporations scouring the face of the earth, the seas and oceans as well as the atmosphere around us and even extraterrestrial bodies like the moon and asteroids in space for alternatives. The Chinese Government as one good instance took the race to literally mine the moon for fuel resources up a notch and sent the whole “concerned” world into a frenzy. Compared with millions of tonnes of coal or barrels of crude oil being used daily around the world to generate electricity, there is a substance, 40 tonnes of which will be able to power the entire US for a year; this substance is called Helium-3 (a chemical isotope of regular helium that is extremely rare on earth but apparently abundant on the moon) and China leads this race. Now where does this leave Africa?

Crude Oil and other forms of fossil fuels have been in use for more than a century to date and Africa still largely struggles with it. Inefficient electricity supply, fuel scarcities (not that we make the vehicles here either anyway) are still more or less regular occurrences. This compares in incredibly vivid contrast with the rest of the world most of which have basic energy requirements figured out and are investing heavily in energy research and development. The US as an example, spent almost $50bn on renewable energy research and technology development in 2014. Europe as a continent spent as much even though at the same period, they had cut down expenditure by around 21%. European Investment in renewables may have been cut down locally but on assesssment of data, it becomes apparent that the reduction made by EU states and corporations were sent out to developing countries to be identified under a separate tag as the cummulative global spending remained largely the same (circa $250bn annually). The developing countries that invested the most in renewables were India, China and Brazil who accounted for $119bn out of almost $132bn – mostly Chinese (see figure below). Without any doubts, there are countries like Morocco and South Africa who have taken on audacious renewable energy projects which are in operation today and also account for substantial portions of Africa’s $12bn investment in renewables, it is noteworthy that India alone had about $10bn in investment compared.

Share of investment in renewables by global regions (UNEP, 2016)

But then there is an increasing amount of awareness on the gains of using renewables especially solar in Sub-Saharan africa. As a matter of fact, it has been noted that deploying solar panels on 1% of the surface of the Sahara would generate enough electricity to power the world although this is dependent on the availability of superconductors. However, most of Africa and her governments seem more or less passive to the importance of the new energy race and the impacts to political stability, regional economy, human and environmental welfare that it poses, choosing to leave the responsibility to develop renewables in Africa to external corporations and celebrating these proposals like they have no idea what it means for the long-term economic future of the region especially when global economic uncertainties are considered.

Raising a Wind Turbine in Durban
Greenpeace and Tcktcktck volunteers raise a wind turbine on the beach at dawn in Durban, South Africa. To send a message of hope for the latest round of UN climate change talks opening here on Monday. Campaigners say Durban must be a new dawn for the international negotiations to agree a fair, ambitious and legally binding treaty to avert climate chaos. They are demanding that politicians stop listening to the polluting corporations and listen to the people who want an end to our dependence on fossil fuels. Africa is on the front line of dangerous climate change, with millions already suffering the impacts through increased drought and extreme weather events, threatening lives and food security.

The adoption of renewables is expensive in most african countries. Using solar power as an instance, has seen no appreciable improvement in commercial uptake especially in the Sub-saharan subregion even after the Chinese crashed the prices of solar panels by something of 80% compared with the prices american producers offered. Africa’s consistence in not showing up to the energy RT&D  (Research and Technlogical Development) debate has had the most deleterious effect of ensuring that the continent with the most abundant sunshine hours for instance, cannot make economic use of free renewable fuels at the very least. Among academia, it has been informally argued by UK environmentalists that had the UK the sunshine hours of Sub-Saharan Africa, the country would have been energy independent since the 70’s. Stimulating capital investment in renewable and alternative energy RT&D in Africa is of utmost importance and ought to be one of the prime objectives of any government today.

As substantial spending on renewables in a region where even the cheaper sources of power have to be priced on the low ends and perpetually sustained with subsidies, will not come off as the most enticing of business/investment propositions, governmental support in terms of policymaking, providing research grants to universities and research institutions that focus on stimulating development and consumption of renewable energy would be necessary. No one is too poor to invest in their future, nor too poor to think of maintaining a pollution free environment as a luxury and these seem to be points that African Governments would need to understand. As a matter of fact, playing the “Africa is poor” card is quickly becoming an existential threat to the entire region. Seeking to rely on waiting for finished goods from  other parts of the world only for them to arrive with a realisation realise that they are too expensive to be deployed effectively, has gone on for long enough. As of today, every one has their own problems and very little time and resources to help anyone else figure theirs out (well except if it is part of their foreign policy mandate and like China, they need it to keep unemployment quota in check). Setting out sections of national budgets to this cause and developing schemes to raise funds on a national scale for these programmes would be another way that indicates governmental determination to take a proactive stance in fending for the futures of their respective countries and also an act that could promote local and foreign investment in the renewable energy business providing valuable knowledge, technological expertise and jobs in the process. “At all at all na im bad pass” is a relatable Nigerian saying and it keys quite befittingly to this issue. Perhaps it is the kind of attitude we should adopt to kickstart our campaign on investment in renewables and alternative energy sources.

Africa is at a pivotal point in her industrial history at which she could almost entirely bypass the mistakes made by other more developed continents over the past few centuries and enter a new, more efficient stage in industrialisation. This could most importantly provide better living standards for her populace that will end the scourge of poverty the continent has long come to be associated with. This advantage however, has to be seized and acted upon with extreme determination from all of the people of Africa or the future that she looks forward to might not exist as she hopes it would.

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