Renewable energy has robust future in much of Africa: study

Renewable energy has robust future in much of Africa
The location and energy potential, in terawatt hours, of eastern and southern African renewable resources (wind, solar photovoltaic and concentrating solar power). Credit: UC Berkeley

As Africa gears up for a tripling of electricity demand by 2030, a new Berkeley study maps out a viable strategy for developing wind and solar power while simultaneously reducing the continent's reliance on fossil fuels and lowering power plant construction costs.

Using resource mapping tools, a University of California, Berkeley, and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory team assessed the potential for large solar and wind farms in 21 countries in the southern and eastern African power pools, which includes more than half of Africa's population, stretching from Libya and Egypt in the north and along the eastern coast to South Africa.

They concluded that with the right strategy for placing solar and wind farms, and with international sharing of power, most African nations could lower the number of conventional power plants - fossil fuel and hydroelectric - they need to build, thereby reducing their infrastructure costs by perhaps billions of dollars.

"The big surprising find is that the wind and solar resources in Africa are absolutely gigantic, and something you could tap into for relatively low cost," said senior author Duncan Callaway, a UC Berkeley associate professor of energy and resources and a faculty scientist at Bekeley Lab. "But we need to be thinking now about strategies for fostering international collaboration to tap into the resource in a way that is going to maximize its potential while minimizing its impact."

The main issue, Callaway says, is that energy-generating resources are not spread equally thoughout Africa. Hydroelectric power is the main power source for one-third of African nations, but it is not available in all countries, and climate change makes it an uncertain resource because of more frequent droughts. The best areas for wind and solar are not equitably distributed either, and many argue that wind and solar are too erratic and undependable.

Based on the team's analysis, however, choosing wind sites to match the timing of wind generation with electricity demand is less costly overall than choosing sites with the greatest wind energy production. Assuming adequate transmission lines, strategies that take into account the timing of wind generation result in a more even distribution of wind capacity across countries than those that maximize energy production.

Importantly, the researchers say, both energy trade and siting to match generation with demand reduces the system costs of developing wind sites that are low impact, that is, closer to existing transmission lines, closer to areas where electricity would be consumed and in areas with preexisting human activity as opposed to pristine areas.

"If you take the strategy of siting all of these systems such that their total production correlates well with electricity demand, then you save hundreds of millions to billions of dollars per year versus the cost of electricity infrastructure dominated by coal-fired plants or hydro," Callaway said. "You also get a more equitable distribution of generation sources across these countries."

"Together, international energy trade and strategic siting can enable African countries to pursue 'no-regrets' wind and solar potential that can compete with conventional generation technologies like coal and hydropower," emphasized UC Berkeley graduate student Grace Wu, who conducted the study with fellow graduate student Ranjit Deshmukh. Wu and Deshmukh are the lead authors of the study.

The study will appear online this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Charting Africa's energy future

The team set out to tackle a key question for electricity planners in Africa and the international development community, which helps fund such projects: How should these countries allocate their precious and limited investment dollars to most effectively address electricity and climate challenges in the coming decades? The fear, Callaway said, is that reliance on traditional hydro and fossil fuel - mostly coal - power plants will push out more environmentally friendly renewable sources in the future.

Wu and Deshmukh gathered previously unavailable information on the annual solar and wind resources in 21 countries in eastern and southern Africa, and hourly estimates of wind speeds for nine countries south of the Sahara Desert.

They developed an energy resource mapping framework, which they call Multi-criteria Analysis for Planning Renewable Energy, or MapRE, to identify and characterize potential wind and solar projects. They then modeled various scenarios for siting wind power and examined additional system costs from hydro and fossil fuels.

The team concluded that even after excluding solar and wind farms from areas that are too remote or too close to sensitive environmental or cultural sites—what they term "no-regret" sites - there is more than enough land in this part of Africa to produce renewable power to meet the rising demand, if fossil fuel and/or hydroelectric power are in the mix to even out the load. Nevertheless, choosing only the most productive sites for development - the windiest and sunniest - would leave some countries with little low-cost local renewable energy generation.

If, however, countries can agree to share power and build the transmission lines to make that happen, all countries could develop sites that are low-cost and accessible, and have low environmental impact, while reducing the number of new hydro or fossil fuel plants that need to be built.

Callaway says that a few countries already share power, such as South Africa with Mozambique and Zimbabwe, but that more countries will need to broker the agreements and build the transmission lines to allow this. International transmission lines are being planned, but primarily to share hydropower resources located in a handful of countries. These transmission plans need to incorporate sharing of wind and solar in order to help them be competitive generation technologies in Africa, he said.

Explore further

Iran and Middle East could adopt fully renewable electricity systems

More information: Strategic siting and regional grid interconnections key to low-carbon futures in African countries, PNAS,
Provided by University of California - Berkeley
Citation: Renewable energy has robust future in much of Africa: study (2017, March 27) retrieved 23 August 2019 from
This document is subject to copyright. Apart from any fair dealing for the purpose of private study or research, no part may be reproduced without the written permission. The content is provided for information purposes only.

Feedback to editors

User comments

Mar 27, 2017
All this can provide more jobs and kinds of jobs for the population if they can do it themselves. They will need help, but it is in everybody's best interest to do it together.

Skipping the Age of centralized power can let them bootstrap themselves into the 21st Century by concentrating on development at the person level.

In fact, check this out:
"Clean energy employs more people than fossil fuels in nearly every U.S. state"

Mar 28, 2017
In fact, check this out:
"Clean energy employs more people than fossil fuels in nearly every U.S. state"

That's actually a bad thing, as it means clean energy requires more labor per unit output, which means it costs more; it's less efficient to produce because of the economic activity (=consumption of resources) needed to pay for it.

You want your energy sources to be as much hands-off as possible, so you can allocate your labor and productive resources to actually using said energy rather than simply making it.

Highly decentralized energy is by its very nature more labor-intensive, and thus more expensive, and your energy expenses reflect on the whole rest of your living standards as everything you have is made using it.

Mar 28, 2017
What do you have against clean energy and more jobs?

BTW, we are saving $3,000/year so far with our PV, with a 23% ROI.

How are your investments doing?

Mar 29, 2017
Oh, boy, I got four negative ratings for that. But the facts cannot be debated, . . they are facts.

If we are to succeed, we need personal commitments from everybody, not just the first users.

Mar 31, 2017
What do you have against clean energy and more jobs?

Absolutely nothing.

It's just that subsidized renewables at the moment don't bring more jobs, as the jobs are created with the subsidies paid by others, so while some are employed to maintain wind turbines or install solar panels, others are laid off and jobs outsourced due to cost increases.

You know the fool an his blanket, who found his toes went cold, so he cut a foot off the top of the blanket to sew back on the bottom over his feet? You get the same amount of energy, but you're paying more for it, so something else has to give.

And the energy isn't clean either, as it depends on fossil fuels to build and maintain, and produces its own waste and pollution such as silicon tetrachloride, or landfill from worn out turbine parts, CO2 from concrete foundations, nuclear waste from REE mining... etc. etc.

Mar 31, 2017
I think that is you in the blanket, trying to find weaknesses in the ideas and advances of others, but coming up short.

Personal commitments, Eikka.

That is what it takes.

Apr 02, 2017
trying to find weaknesses in the ideas and advances of others, but coming up short.

Renewables are factually paid more per MWh than anything else. The PPA + subsidies + net metering etc. come up higher than any other baseload source, and the intermittency creates a greater need for the more expensive load following capacity.

So tell me, how does making energy more expensive bring about more jobs?

If the industry pays more for electricity, they ask more for the products, or they lay people off and replace them with more efficient processes. Either way, you're just cutting the blanket from one end and adding to the other.

Apr 02, 2017
"So tell me, how does making energy more expensive bring about more jobs? "

That is your perspective, . . . from far away.

Those of us with PV power systems and electric vehicles have great savings.

What do you do?

Apr 03, 2017
Those of us with PV power systems and electric vehicles have great savings.

Paid by other taxpayers and utility customers.

Apr 03, 2017
The utility customers benefit from my PV, as it is another clean input to the system, so dirty power is replaced.

It is injected into the system locally, so no use of transmission is required, and little distribution, since it goes to the houses on the same transformer secondary as mine.

Your attempt to find fault failed. It will continue to replace dirty power for decades.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more