by Ruth Aine - 01 January 2016
I live in the capital of Uganda, Kampala. The city is relatively fast-paced as any city could be. My mother lives and works up country but once in a while she will visit or rather come to see how the home is ‘faring’. She was home recently and I noticed something. We have cooking gas in the house as it’s fast, safe and easy to use to cook with. The price for the smallest gas canister I would say were ‘manageable’ but those have increased in the recent past due to the strengthening of the dollar against the weakening Ugandan shilling. However, my mother, an accomplished lady in her own right, will insist on lighting a charcoal stove and use it to cook while around. Her argument – it is cheaper. Charcoal is cheaper than gas. Also reminds me of how my grandmother has never agreed to use a charcoal stove but would rather use firewood to cook. Her argument – firewood cooks faster – and I must admit grandmama’s food tastes better with the aroma of firewood.
Now this and many more realities are continuing to shape renewable energy on ground level. And if these trends continue in 2016, the future of renewable energy on the continent is threatened.
Research has shown that traditional biomass energy usage has serious environmental drawbacks and we know this. We see the effects daily on our lives. The indoor air pollution from unvented biofuel cooking stoves is a major contributor to respiratory illnesses in highland areas of Sub-Saharan Africa. Reliance on biomass (especially in the form of charcoal) also encourages land degradation. In some areas, for example around major cities like Lusaka in Zambia, Dar es Salaam in Tanzania and Nairobi in Kenya, charcoal demand appears to contribute to degradation of the surrounding woodlands and forests (Karekezi, 2002a, Kantai, 2002).
However, research has also revealed that Africa has substantial new and renewable energy resources, most of which are under-exploited. For example, only about 7% of Africa’s enormous hydro potential has been harnessed. Existing estimates of hydro potential do not even include small, mini and micro hydro opportunities, which are also significant. Geothermal energy potential stands at 9000MW, but only about 60MW has been exploited in Kenya. Estimates further indicate that a significant proportion of current electricity generation in 16 eastern and southern African countries could be met by bagasse-based cogeneration in the sugar industry. Based on the limited initiatives that have been undertaken to date, renewable energy technologies (RETs) could contribute significantly to the development of the energy sector in eastern and southern African countries.
We are sitting on a goldmine. And this is where I don’t quite understand what Africa’s problem is, because we cannot say that we do not know these things. I would love to believe that we do know and are aware.
We know that RETs provide attractive environmentally sound technology options for Africa’s electricity industry. We know that RETs could offset a significant proportion of foreign exchange that is currently used for importing oil for electricity generation in most countries. We know that renewables are modular and are well-suited for meeting decentralized rural energy demand. Don’t we? Then what is holding us back? Why do we have systems that mostly don’t deliver on climate change related issues?
On December 1st 2015, African heads of state launched the African Renewable Energy Initiative (AREI) in an attempt to provide up to 300GW of renewable energy. This is a great step in the right direction as are all policies we have on the Continent. But I wonder, how is this going to be managed and synchronized with already existing national plans on renewable energy, if any? This project was launched at the COP21 United Nations climate talks in Paris. It came as a key contribution from the Continent during the talks. AREI’s aim is to deliver 10GW by 2020 and hopefully 300GW by 2030. Long-term makes a lot of sense and I am hoping that it actually sticks.
This to me shows that Africa’s future on renewable energy is yet to be fully decided. We have tradition and culture pulling us in one direction, and we have progress pulling us into another direction. Can we agree to make up our minds about renewable energy on the continent? I really hope so.