8c1f9d0346f86fe80e58720a_pa2339c.jpg Paul Lachine

Lighting the Dark Continent

Nineteenth-century European explorers called Africa the Dark Continent, because to them it was vast and largely unknown. Today, Africa may still be dark, but for a very different reason: it is chronically short of electricity.

NAIROBI – Nineteenth-century European explorers called Africa the “Dark Continent,” because to them it was vast and largely unknown. Today, Africa may still be dark, but for a very different reason: it is chronically short of electricity. Indeed, nocturnal satellite images show that, except for some parts of southern and northern Africa, it barely twinkles.

The United Nations has designated 2012 the International Year of Sustainable Energy for All. Its official launch in Africa in mid-February will not “switch on” the continent in a flash – but it can help to jump-start global efforts towards that goal, thereby enhancing the lives and livelihoods of millions of people.

Attempts have been made before to electrify Africa, with mixed results. But this time can be different. Many countries are already testing the technologies and policies needed to bring energy to rural areas and growing cities. Innovative investment mechanisms and sharply falling manufacturing and installation costs of renewable energy technologies, including wind, advanced biomass, and solar power, are essential to unlocking the continent’s potential.

In Kenya, new drilling techniques are tapping the country’s geothermal energy resources, adding hundreds of megawatts of generating capacity in recent years. Kenya is also about to begin construction of sub-Saharan Africa’s largest wind farm.

In Egypt, investment in renewable energy rose by $800 million, to $1.3 billion, in 2010, owing to the solar thermal project in KomOmbo and a 220-megawatt onshore wind farm in the Gulf of Zayt.

In Morocco, the provision of solar photovoltaic kits to isolated villages has helped to raise access rates to electricity in rural areas from less than 15% in 1990 to more than 97% in 2009. The country has been chosen as the first location to develop a 500 MW concentrated solar plant as part of the Desertec Industrial Initiative.

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Instead of waiting for a grid to come to a town or village, renewable energies can be swiftly deployed in remote areas. Distributed generation using renewables can also help to reduce the risk of massive power outages and resulting reliance on expensive diesel power, which currently can cost up to 5% of a country’s annual GDP – a problem that affects 30 of the 48 countries in sub-Saharan Africa.

Innovative schemes are underway: in parts of Africa, for example, mobile phone companies have begun piloting ways to provide customers access to solar energy. Electricity is supplied on a pay-as-you-go basis and tied to phone bills, unlocking market opportunities for isolated farmers.

But more is needed. Africa is endowed with vast untapped renewable energy resources that can provide electricity for all at an affordable cost. The potential of wind power alone is more than 1,000 gigawatts, or more than five times the continent’s current total installed generating capacity. The potential output of solar energy is ten times higher, in excess of 10,000 GW, while only 5% of the region’s estimated hydropower resources has so far been exploited. In parts of Africa, sustainably developed biomass could provide fuels to assist in meeting growing demand for transportation fuels.

With Africa having yet to build nearly two-thirds of the additional capacity that it will need in 2030, the continent faces a unique opportunity to benefit from recent advances and cost reductions in renewable power-generation technologies, thereby leapfrogging the energy path taken by industrialized countries.

The story is not limited to electrification. In Ghana, an African Rural Energy Enterprise Development project, supported by the UN Foundation, has helped small entrepreneurs to scale up and supply 50,000 homes with cleaner, more efficient cooking stoves, while generating manufacturing and service jobs and cutting health-damaging emissions in houses. There are similar stories across Africa – and, again, significant need for further progress.

The International Year of Sustainable Energy for All coincides with the year of the Rio+20 Summit, when, marking 20 years since the Earth Summit of 1992 paved the way towards sustainable development, world leaders will meet again to achieve that goal. One cooperative decision that world leaders can take when they meet again in Rio de Janeiro is to reduce or phase out the more than $500 billion of global fossil-fuel subsidies, the benefits of which reach less than one-tenth of the poorest 20% if the world’s population.

It will be a challenge, but a gradual, well-designed, and properly communicated set of policies could accelerate the quest for more sustainable sources of energy. A good place to start is the public sector: procurement by governments and local authorities can play an important role in shifting economies towards cleaner forms of energy. Building the banking sector’s capacity and managing exchange-rate risk in some African countries would also help to realize Africa’s potential for sustainable energy production.

Many barriers remain, but today they are no longer insurmountable. Governments, the private sector, and civil-society groups in Africa and beyond should support the UN Secretary-General’s initiative, by nurturing the new generation of entrepreneurs and innovators who will bring light to 600 million African citizens whose lives and livelihoods remain benighted.

This column was produced within the framework of the EC-funded “V4Aid” project. The views expressed do not necessarily represent the view of the EU.

Read more from our "The Road to Rio+20" Focal Point.