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Ensuring renewable energy empowers Africa

Renewable energy is coming to Africa, and it is welcome. In 2019, it was estimated that 580 million people across the continent did not have access to electricity, a scarcity in need of redress. As the continent most vulnerable to climate change, despite having least contributed to the crisis, the importance of Africa’s energy generation circumventing further global warming is paramount. But with all this promise and potential, there are yet other issues that need to be considered as Africa sets ambition towards a renewable energy powered future

In order to understand the status of renewable energy in ten African countries and interrogate issues surrounding the building of associated infrastructure, 350Africa.org and WoMin African Alliance commissioned the Energy Research Centre at the University of Cape Town. The result was the recent report “Renewable Energy in Africa: An opportunity in a time of crisis”. The report focuses on Botswana, Côte d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast), Democratic Republic of Congo, Egypt, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa and Uganda. It attempts to understand ownership of renewable energy developments and whether there is any substantial change from the prevailing model of developing big, grid-tied energy infrastructure and what progress is being made on advancing RE. Importantly, it includes some initial analysis of community participation and the impacts of RE.

The report shows that despite renewable energy becoming cheaper for electricity generation than fossil fuels coupled with environmental and social benefits, there are still big hurdles to their uptake. From the fossil fuel industry seeing Africa as one of the last possible markets to an absence of government policy on renewable energy, there is much work to be done by activists to ensure the uptake of renewable energy.

The report shows that there is huge growth planned for renewable energy with five times the amount that is currently operating in the planning stages. Although this is over 77 000 MW, it is still less than the 88 000 MW of fossil fuel installations planned. Egypt, Kenya and the Ivory Coast stand out as the most ambitious in their renewable energy plans for the next decade. While the report emphasises larger scale installations and private sector implementation as they are often better publicised, there is potential for decentralised energy production through RE. Arguably, this approach mostly favours the development potential of renewable energy - providing electricity to people and households, particularly in rural areas, rather than industry and urban elites.

While renewable energy is arguably the cleanest form of energy available, there is still a significant risk of harm in its implementation. Mega hydro-electric dams are excluded from the definition of renewable energy in the report, and concerns with the implementation of large scale geothermal, solar farms and wind projects are highlighted. Both organisations support localised, decentralised, clean, RE alternatives which benefit poor communities and women specifically. Women form the majority of subsistent farmers across the region and because of their gender prescribed roles, are most burdened by a lack of energy, and those who are harmed by dirty energy through air and water pollution.

Timing is crucial in this renewable energy revolution. We need to balance moving quickly enough, to get people electricity while avoiding climate catastrophe, with going slowly enough, to ensure we implement infrastructure in a way that considers and empowers African people, and especially women. Implementing renewable energy within a different development model than the one that drove fossil fuels should also be considered. Going too fast risks repeating the mistakes and impacts of fossil fuel projects, too slow risks not delivering on Sustainable Development Goals to end poverty.

The report raises a number of questions that require further research in its conclusion, and lists issues that need to be addressed in attempts to provide access to electricity across Africa, while simultaneously reducing carbon emissions from Africa’s electricity sector:

  • Affected communities' free, prior and informed consent must be respected, as well as their right to withhold their consent from a project.
  • Environmental and social impacts (with a very particular focus on women) should be assessed, made public in an accessible language and through appropriate forums for full consultation with affected people, before final approval by the government. If impacts are considered to be grave, particularly for excluded groups like women, projects should not proceed.
  • Renewable energy infrastructure should be sited and constructed in a way that reduces negative impacts. In constructing renewable energy infrastructure, projects must be sensitive to the ecological and community impacts and ensure the benefits are shared equitably.
  • Cost-benefit analyses are needed and should be conducted by independent and multi-sector teams. The analyses should also address other options for how to deliver the stated project goals. Climate and ecology should be included in any cost-benefit analysis.
  • Communities’ have the opportunity and ability to collectively own all or part of the project and benefit from the energy produced. Women and young people in the community should be supported to participate in ownership schemes.

In a just recovery from COVID-19 and one that seeks to address climate justice, Africa must seize the moment to revolutionise its energy systems and prevent becoming locked into an ongoing battle with dirty energy.