[Viewpoint] The ‘Dark Continent’

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[Viewpoint] 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. 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 Kom Ombo 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 percent in 1990 to more than 97 percent in 2009. The country is chosen as the first location to develop a 500 MW concentrated solar plant as part of the Desertec Industrial Initiative.

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 can cost up to 5 percent of a country’s annual GDP - a problem affecting 30 of the 48 countries in sub-Saharan Africa.

Innovative schemes are underway: In parts of Africa, for example, mobile phone companies are 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 to 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 percent 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.

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 percent of 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.

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.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2012.

by Achim Steiner

*The author is executive director of the UN Environment Program.
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