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Africa must invest in clean electricity to address climate crisis

When COP27 opened in Sharm el-Sheikh, it did so against a backdrop of extreme weather events worldwide and scientific data which show that humanity is not doing enough to tackle the climate change crisis and safeguard the future of our planet.

The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is succinct: Climate change is already impacting every corner of the world, and much more severe impacts are coming if we don’t act fast to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

In East Africa, and the larger parts of the Horn of Africa, a ravaging drought is causing havoc. Millions of people and their livestock are at risk from one of the worst climate-induced emergencies in decades. Four consecutive seasons of rainfall failure has unleashed hunger, thirst, displacement and death on already vulnerable communities as crops fail and livestock die. The UN World Food Program says 22 million people require immediate food assistance as a result of the climate change-induced crisis.

Increasing climate variability is causing more intense and untimely rainfall in Nigeria. The country is facing the worst floods in a decade. Hundreds of lives have been lost. Over 1.3 million people have been displaced, and more than 2.8 million have been impacted. Farmlands and infrastructure have been submerged. The UN Refugee Agency UNHCR is warning of surging needs for more than 3.4 million displaced people in the face of the destructive floods that have also affected Chad, Niger, Burkina Faso, Mali and Cameroon. It is clear that urgent action is needed to address the climate change crisis.

Electricity generation and climate change

The generation of electricity has a huge impact on climate. When fossil fuels are burned to generate electricity, greenhouse gases and other air pollutants are released to the atmosphere. According to Africa Energy Outlook 2022, fossil fuels currently provide over 75% of all the electricity generated in Africa. As of 2020, natural gas was the largest source, contributing to 40% of the electricity generated in the continent. Coal followed at 30%, predominantly in South Africa.

Africa is already experiencing increased anomalies in climate patterns and is likely to experience greater climate impacts if no remedies are put in place. The continent can play its part in limiting global warming by embracing clean energy sources, especially in how it generates its electricity. As African governments struggle with the dual challenge of ensuring universal electrification and converting their electricity infrastructure to improve resilience and reduce emissions, minigrids provide the most robust and cost-effective solution for both.

In many African countries today, minigrids are playing a central role in the transition to renewable energy and clean electricity. Minigrids are offsetting diesel use from gensets and diesel-based milling which are expensive to operate, contribute to global environmental emissions, and pollute the local air quality.

In Nigeria for instance, diesel gensets have for a long time contributed to emission of greenhouse gases. However, with the increased growth of minigrids in Nigeria, there is hope that the country will be able to cut on emissions from diesel gensets.  The Africa Minigrids Developers Association Benchmarking Africa’s Minigrids Report indicate that the number of operational private sector minigrids grew by 39 percent from 288 in 2019 to 400 sites in 2021. This is a step in the right direction.

Sustainable electricity infrastructure through minigrids

For Africa, the solution to decarbonize the power sector lies in investing and supporting the growth of minigrids and Distributed Renewable Energy (DRE). Through minigrids and DRE, governments are able to grow their economies while meeting their nationally determined contributions (NDC) commitments under Article 6 of the Paris Climate Agreement.

Minigrids are seeing a surge in interest as a less expensive, more reliable, stable and faster rural electrification approach compared to the extension of national grids. We are already seeing mine sites, farms and manufacturing partially solarizing their production lines through commercial and industrial renewable energy solutions as opposed to using unstable and intermittent grid supplied electricity or diesel backup generators. Expanding rural infrastructure that leverages renewable minigrids is the next logical expansion to this structure.

Renewable energy minigrids are expanding in many regions in Sub-Saharan Africa, particularly in countries where rural electrification targets are explicitly complemented by enabling policies for minigrids. In the year 2020, 9 percent of all electricity generated in Africa came from renewable sources. International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) estimates that with the right policies, regulation, governance and access to financial markets, sub-Saharan Africa could meet up to 67 percent of its electricity needs from renewable sources by 2030.

Minigrids provide clean electricity access to households, public facilities, and businesses using decentralized electricity generation technologies. They reduce the need for non-renewable energy generation on the grid, contributing largely to cutting grid-related emissions.

Building the resilient grid of the future

Minigrids in underserved rural areas are helping communities improve their resilience to the impacts of climate change. They are offering communities a degree of autonomy from the national grid and, in the case of climate-related natural disasters, minigrids ensure that the communities they serve continue to have access to electricity and are thus better able to cope with the local effects.

As extreme weather gets worse due to climate change, minigrids have proven to be more mobile and quickly deployable assets with robust back-end software that optimizes operations. Using the latest technologies, minigrids are electrifying households and improving the reliability of electricity supply in remote areas, where supply from national grids is frequently disrupted by unplanned outages caused by technical issues and extreme weather events. 

Decentralized Energy Recourses are ideal for resilient infrastructure. They can operate within the grid or isolated and can be managed remotely.  Because of the decentralized nature, adverse weather events that effect one system won’t affect other systems. Besides, they have the smallest amount of grid losses.

In May 2021, Mt. Nyiragongo volcano erupted in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The eruption lasted more than 10 hours leaving three villages and one neighborhood in the city of Goma destroyed and over 3,629 houses destroyed.  While parastatal utilities struggled to maintain water and power supply, a privately owned minigrid known as Nuru in Goma managed to ensure continued and uninterrupted service.

Following the eruption, the region experienced a series of earthquakes and tremors that damaged power lines cutting off electricity supply to approximately 500,000 people. In the wake of the crisis, Nuru maintained 100% uptime service and ensured no gaps in electricity supply at a time when the national grid had failed.

The way forward

From November 6, leaders from Africa and across the world are gathering in Sharm el-Sheikh in what will be a critical test of whether the world can respond to the increasing threat of climate change. For leaders from Africa and the emerging markets, the balancing act between development and climate will be at play again. African countries need more reliable and affordable electricity to meet their development goals. At the same time, they must decarbonize electricity generation to meet their commitments under the Paris Agreement.

Many have argued that emerging markets should be allowed to increase emissions to allow them to industrialize faster. However, the renewable and Distributed Energy Resources (DER) markets through the growth of both minigrids commercial and industrial solar systems have shown that we can achieve both at the same time. Decentralized renewable solutions will allow Africa to leap frog the inefficient centralized grid of US and Europe and build the grid of the future.  As places like California and Scotland move to decentralize their grid infrastructure, reducing transmission losses and improving renewables on grid, Africa has the chance to lead the world in building clean electricity generation infrastructure for sustainable development.

The meetings and roundtable discussions in Sharm el-Sheikh will be key to protecting the future of our planet, and as countries prepare to commit themselves once again to effectively tackle the global challenge of climate change and achieve sustainable development, there has never been a more urgent need to seize the opportunity to build the energy and electricity generation system for tomorrow: The bi-directional Distributed Energy Resources, anchored on renewables and sophisticated software and remote management. Such is the energy system that will help address the climate change crisis and help create a resilient planet as called by the COP27 Presidency.     

  

Authored by Jessica Stephens, CEO, Africa Minigrid Developers Association

Photo credit: ©Nuru, DRC

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