Affordable abundance – unleashing wind power in Africa

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

The wind resource analysis commissioned by the Word Bank Group’s International Finance Corporation estimates that there is enough wind to power the continent’s energy demand 250 times over. [arrowsmith2 / Shutterstock]

More than anything else, Africa should focus on developing its electricity grid in order to unleash its huge potential for wind and solar power. This is a massive political challenge across a very large continent, writes Johan van den Berg.

Johan van den Berg is the head of Secretariat of the Africa-EU Energy Partnership (AEEP).

Wind power can easily supply electricity to each and every African at prices far below what even grid-connected customers are paying now. If we had an African ‘super grid’ in place and focused all global wind developments on Africa for just one year, energy poverty could be eradicated on the continent.

These are the facts as they emerge from various, recent reports and analysed in the Africa-EU Energy Partnership’s policy brief ‘Wind Energy: Joining Forces for an African Lift-Off‘.

Looking at the potential of wind under the headings of resource, global capacity, speed of deployment and cost-efficiency, opens up strategic opportunities for us as a continent brimming with potential and benefitting from a close alignment with Europe, a leader in wind energy.

The wind resource in Africa has been reassessed at the request of the World Bank. Keep in mind that the continent is extremely large, very windy in places and that technological progress (higher towers, longer blades, bigger turbines) have allowed wind power to prosper in ever-more locations.

Africa now has a total of 6,468 MW of installed capacity, but this figure only represents a fraction of the continent’s technical wind potential. The wind resource analysis commissioned by the World Bank Group’s International Finance Corporation estimates that there is enough wind to power the continent’s energy demand 250 times over.

Despite the very low per-unit cost of modern wind power, Africa is presently only using 0.01% of its wind energy resource.

In 2020, the international wind community installed 93 GW of new wind power globally, according to the GWEC 2021 Global Wind Report.

This growth, if all of it had occurred in Africa and the grid was ready to receive and distribute it, could theoretically have lifted 737 million Africans from no access to sustainable energy services to Tier 3 access in the ESMAP framework – in one year.

A windfarm typically takes 12-24 months to build. Before that lies a period of about 24 months of wind measurement, environmental impact assessment, stakeholder engagement, and feasibility studies. Adding up all of these steps still leaves us at less than four years – a very short time in the context of electrifying a continent.

In view of cost, or perhaps more accurately, “extreme affordability”, we can look at a recent example. The winners of Round 5 of South Africa´s REIPPPP tender process were announced in October last year.

The lowest price achieved by the Dwarsrug Wind Facility was just over USD 2c/kWh, with the average price for all winners in wind at just over USD 3c/kWh. These prices would be near-replicable in many parts of Africa if the regulatory regimes for procuring wind power were optimised.

Note that retail prices are around USD 20c/kWh in Johannesburg (South Africa), USD 13c/kWh in Rabat (Morocco), USD 19c/kWh in Dakar (Senegal) and USD 5c/kWh in Cairo (Egypt) while microgrids on average lead to tariffs of around USD 50c/kWh and Solar Home Systems to tariffs around USD 1,00/kWh.

What all this tells us is that the more wind power we build, the lower our electricity prices will get. The same is true for solar PV. This of course ultimately requires the ability to stabilise the grid through storage, dynamic grid management or adding a fully predictable energy source to the mix.

The financial benefit then shrinks but does not disappear. What is clear is that we have technology that can bring sustainable and affordable energy to every African very rapidly.

Our focus should be on the other, long-lead items that have to be in place to enable this energy revolution. Business-friendly regulatory regimes are essential. More than anything else, we should focus on the grid.

This is a massive challenge across a very large continent. Once we had everything ready to start building, even a construction progress at the rate China achieves would probably mean we will need a decade or more. And before we can start, we need political alignment and finance.

The one leads to the other, while also depending on each other. In the final instance, electrifying Africa is a political challenge, not a technical one. Already today, the African Union Commission and European Technical Assistance Facility are deeply engaged in the planning of the African Single Electricity Market.

Like with climate stability, universal energy access for all Africans is certainly achievable in our lifetimes. The Sustainable Development Goals ask us to do so in the next eight years. While this target is daunting, it is within the order of magnitude of what is achievable in the real world.

We, the people of Africa, can and must make this work through our solidarity and collaboration. If we are ready and aligned, the money can be found. All the other elements already exist. In this sense, our energy fate is in our collective hands.

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