• Power of the collective

    While renewables have gathered significant momentum, fossil fuels remain a highly viable option for resource-rich African nations.

    Power of the collective

    The scale of Africa’s energy gap – estimated by the AfDB to number 640 million people – has been widely publicised. The idea that renewable energy (especially solar, wind and geothermal power) can be used to ‘leapfrog’ energy development is widely accepted in the development community. Former UN secretary general Kofi Annan, in his foreword to the 2015 Africa Progress panel, argued that ‘African nations do not have to lock into developing high-carbon old technologies; we can expand our power generation and achieve universal access to energy by leapfrogging into new technologies that are transforming energy systems across the world’.

    There has, however, been a pushback against an uncritical acceptance of carbon-free technologies and, in particular, the implication that fossil fuels are under no circumstances acceptable.

    The debate has centred on the role of coal, with African governments eager to use the huge deposits in South Africa, Mozambique, Tanzania, Botswana and Kenya as part of a broad strategy to address the continent’s power generation backlog. Annan himself pointed out that ‘no region has done less to contribute to the climate crisis’.

    Other African government ministers have argued more bluntly that the sheer scale of the continent’s energy backlog requires that it develop all available sources of energy, including fossil fuels. In 2014, then Tanzanian Energy and Minerals Minister, Sospeter Muhongo, argued that ‘Africa should not even be in discussion of whether we use coal or not. In my country of Tanzania, we are going to use our natural resources’.

    A year later, then AfDB president Donald Kaberuka of Rwanda used the term ‘hypocrisy’ in describing Western governments’ advocacy of clean energy at the expense of coal in less developed parts of the world. ‘Africa will not listen,’ he said. Nigerian Finance Minister Kemi Adeosun, speaking at a joint World Bank/IMF meeting in 2016, shared a similar sentiment. ‘We want to build a coal power plant because we are a country blessed with coal, yet we have power problems. However, we are being blocked from doing so because it is not green,’ she said. ‘This is not fair because they have an entire Western industrialisation that was built on coal-fired energy.’

    Coal has been under pressure since at least 2013 when the World Bank, in its decennial Energy Sector Directions paper, announced that it would only finance power projects that use the fossil fuel where there are ‘no feasible alternatives’.

    The IMF has adopted the same stance, arguing that carbon pricing, including taxes, should reflect environmental costs and ‘build resilience to climate change’. These formulations, however, do leave an opening for coal. Critics argue that the World Bank group has financed at least 41 coal-burning power stations globally since the 2013 announcement.

    One institution that was slow to follow the lead set by the World Bank and IMF was the AfDB, a stance that reflected the views of its African government members. It is much more ambiguous than the global multilaterals. In April last year, the continental development bank announced that it has approved an eligibility assessment of the 125 MW Sendou coal-fired power plant in Senegal. Last year, the AfDB entered into talks with the Kenyan government regarding a power station based on the country’s Lamu coal deposit.

    ‘Africa must develop its power sector with what it has,’ says AfDB president Akinwumi Adesina. ’Endowed with many different energy sources – both renewable and conventional – Africa needs a balanced energy mix.’

    When EU ambassador to Kenya Stefano Dejak recommended that the East African nation drop its plans to build its first coal-fired power plant, in line with the global drive for clean energy, he elicited an angry response from the Kenyan media. ‘Why should Kenya forgo coal when an incredibly wealthy EU country like Germany isn’t willing to do the same? Despite being a renewables powerhouse, Germany currently derives 40% of its electricity from coal,’ said one publication.

    Adesina is attempting to finesse the issue. Speaking at an event organised by the UN Economic Commission, he boasted that in 2017, ‘the share of renewable energy in the AfDB’s portfolio [was] 100%’. The projects he spoke about appeared to all be in the renewables space. He was particularly keen to talk about the Desert to Power programme, which aims to develop 10 000 MW of solar power across the Sahel. ‘We have already started with the development of a 50 MW solar power system in Burkina Faso,’ he said.

    According to Adesina, the AfDB’s ambition for the Sahel is to ‘protect the great green wall of trees established to prevent desertification … from being cut down by energy-poor households for use as fuel wood’. This would require construction of ‘the largest solar power system zone in the world’, he said, including both on-grid and off-grid components.

    The coal versus renewables debate was given new legs with the election of Donald Trump on the back of promises to revive the US coal industry. In June 2017, he withdrew from the Paris accord on climate change, the landmark treaty that has subsequently led to both the UK and France banning the building of new coal-burning power stations.

    Trump may be fighting a losing battle. Despite his administration repealing a raft of regulations that it perceives as inhibiting the development of coal, consumption of the fossil fuel in the US fell 2.4% in 2017.

    Kenya’s multidisciplinary approach to energy supply has seen a focus on both coal and renewables

    In the US, the single most important factor in depressing demand for coal is a cheaper direct alternative – natural gas, provided by the country’s fracking industry. In January, the US Federal Energy Commission, a body dominated by Trump’s own Republican party, turned down the administration’s proposal to subsidise coal (and nuclear) power plants.

    It has been suggested that the Trump administration’s stance has negative implications for the US’ main African energy initiative, Power Africa, which was launched by the Obama administration in 2013. Power Africa has an impressive track record to date, having been involved in leveraging US$50 billion in energy commitments in Africa since its inception. Four-fifths of that figure has come in private-sector commitments.

    Power Africa, however, is a renewables programme. It lists natural gas, wind, solar, hydropower, biomass and geothermal resources as its areas of interest. The Obama administration explicitly barred support for coal plants. Yet the programme was established with strong bi-partisan support in Congress, and there are no signs that the Trump administration has prioritised changes. Indeed, while the new US government has supported coal (in the US), it has not explicitly impeded renewables.

    Africa’s leaders argue that they prefer a ‘balanced’ approach to energy development, using fossil fuels where appropriate. It should be noted that, in recent years, coal has become much cleaner. From wet scrubbers to carbon capture and storage technologies, a much more environmentally-friendly industry has become possible.

    However, it comes at a price. The retrofitting of a flue gas desulphurisation plant to South Africa’s gigantic (4 764 MW) Medupi coal-fired power plant cost ZAR15 billion.

    While the coal debate continues, there is no doubt that renewables have gained massive traction throughout the continent. Morocco has plans to generate 42% of its energy from wind, hydro and solar sources by 2020.

    Kenya exemplifies the notion of developing a range of technologies simultaneously. The 310 MW Lake Turkana wind power project has already completed construction of all the turbines, which are ready to be connected to the national grid. Meanwhile, the new 230 MW Olkaria geothermal plant has been running since 2015 and there are plans for three more plants, built by independent power producers (IPPs), to begin construction in this year. Meanwhile, in South Africa, the wind and solar power programme looks far more promising in 2018. The programme, which had been hailed as one of the best designed and, until two years ago, most successful of its kind worldwide, ground to a halt in 2015 when state electricity company Eskom refused to sign IPP agreements valued at ZAR57 billion.

    The parastatal was widely perceived to be a creature of the Jacob Zuma regime, which appeared determined to introduce further nuclear power reactors into the domestic grid. However, in December 2017, Cyril Ramaphosa replaced Zuma as leader of the ruling African National Congress and, two months later, he was elected president of the republic after Zuma was recalled by the ANC.

    The board of Eskom has been replaced; Minister of Finance Nhlanhla Nene has said that nuclear plans would be implemented only at a pace the country could afford; and in early March, Energy Minister Jeff Radebe announced the signing of 27 projects under the REIPPP.

    Renewables are firmly on the table in 2018. But older technologies, especially coal, are not off the agenda. Africa’s energy backlog needs to be dealt with through a sensible mix of approaches.

    By David Christianson
    Images: Gallo/Getty Images, Lake Turkana Wind Power Station