Op-Ed: Africa is on the cusp of a wind energy revolution, it’s time to grasp it

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There is no shortage of quality wind projects coming to market in Africa right now, and the will, capital and technology are in place to create a wave of wind project development across the continent.

However, amidst all the talk of renewable energy in Africa, not one utility scale wind project reached financial close in 2016. This may come as a surprise to many in the industry given how prominently renewables have factored into recent national government plans, as well as in the plans and projections of transnational organisations on the continent.

To provide some context, IRENA’s ‘Renewable Scenario for Africa’ predicts that the share of renewables in Africa will increase from 17% in 2009 to 50% in 2030, and nearly 75% by 2050. Total installed renewable capacity would grow from 28 GW in 2010 to around 800 GW by 2050, with solar photovoltaic accounting for 245 GW, and wind at 242 GW.

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So what is the hold up?

The main obstacles to renewable energy projects being built in a timely manner in Africa today, have been governance and politics, and in particular an excess in bureaucracy and a lack of technical capacity in key government departments.

However, there are bright spots. Kenya’s flagship Lake Turkana wind farm – the largest in Africa is set to be fully operational later this year with investment from global tech giant Google and others. There is also strong momentum in countries like Egypt and Morocco who are second and third behind South Africa in terms of installed wind capacity.

What is driving change?

There is growing consensus among the investor community and society at large that the ‘tipping point’ from fossil fuels to renewable energy has been reached. For Africa in particular, the stakes are high. The ‘renewable energy revolution’, provides Africa with a one off opportunity to leapfrog fossil fuels and the 20th century model of energy development and move towards a clean, efficient system based on 21st century technology the same way Africans skipped ahead to mobile phones over fixed telephony – and embark on a different industrial development path.

The political will is there. It seems one government after another have been setting ambitious clean energy targets in an initiative to transform their energy mix in favour of a more sustainable future. East Africa is a good example beginning with Uganda’s 61% renewable goal by 2017, followed by Kenya’s 42% by 2033 and Tanzania’s 70% by 2026. Not to be outdone, Ethiopia was among the most daring signatories to the Paris Agreement on climate change, committing to cut carbon emissions by 64% by 2030.

The most powerful factor influencing policymakers is that renewables and wind in particular make solid financial sense. The costs of developing solar in Africa fell 50% from 2010 to 2014 and continue to fall, but the cost of wind on the continent is on a very interesting trajectory as the recent tender in Egypt resulted in bids as low as USD 0.041/kWh, a new record for Africa. We have seen the cost of offshore and onshore wind drop dramatically where scale has been reached in places like Europe, China and the USA, demonstrating a way for Africa to follow suit.

Solar paves the way for Wind?

The barriers to entry for utility scale wind projects, are higher than with solar, but the potential of wind is not to be underestimated, especially where it can complement solar power. Recent studies, namely in India and Brazil, revealed how wind and solar projects can complement each other by minimising the variability of the power output and easing pressure on the grid.

India’s Ministry of New and Renewable Energy has released a draft national Wind-Solar Hybrid Policy targeting 10GW by 2022. In a similar move, Brazil’s Senate Committee for Environment has approved a bill that allows hybrid renewable energy projects to take part in the country’s energy auctions.

Using similar logic, certain African countries that initially welcomed solar projects on their home soil are now turning to wind power, as the technology gains ground and its symbiotic relationship with solar becomes clearer.

Two telling yet very different examples come to mind, Egypt and Zambia.

Egypt’s target of 7.2 GW of wind power by 2022 will lead to considerable investments in the near future. The North African country’s estimated investment potential for wind power is $11 billion by 2020, compared to just $5 billion for solar projects.

Zambia, on the other hand, made headlines as the home of Africa’s cheapest solar just over a year ago. Now, the Southern African country known more for its formidable solar and hydropower, is turning to wind with the help of the US Trade and Development Agency (USTDA) grant funding for a 130MW wind farm that Access Power will develop with EREN Renewable Energy.

Only the beginning…

 Things are going in the right direction, so there is reason to believe in the potential of Africa’s wind industry as certain countries, whether likely or unlikely, are showing the way. The next couple of years should see a lot exciting wind projects come to fruition, and it seems inevitable that the current constellation of goodwill, capital and innovation will allow Africa to take the opportunity to chart its own industrial path, towards a clean energy future.

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