Africa’s Bumpy Road to Sustainable Energy

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1With more than 640 million people in Africa with no access to energy and investors looking for cheaper and reliable sources of power, there is no doubt that renewable energy is the future for Africa| Photo source: Mining Review Africa

For years, Kenyans freely used and disposed of plastic bags. The bags were ubiquitous- in the markets, in the gutters and in the guts of 3 out of every 10 animals taken to slaughter. Most towns were an eyesore, with poor dumping sites that left a lot of plastic bags strewn across the roads. This is a story of desperation and despair that got people talking.

In August 2017, the National Environment Management Authority, NEMA, passed a law banning the purchase, sale or use of plastic bags. Those who offend the law risk a penalty of four years in prison or a $ 40,000 fine. This was a sustainable movement that will see the country scale up its conservation if the citizens comply.

Months into the implementation of the law, there was a significant change. Clogging of pipes and drainage systems has reduced tremendously. Roadsides are free from plastic bags and plastic manufacturing companies have been shut down.

According to the World Bank, the African continent suffers the nightmare of trash and plastics. It produces approximately 62 million tons of waste per year, including plastic waste. With Africa’s rapid urbanization and economic growth, environmentalists expect that figure will double by 2025.

Waste to energy

The energy tragedy in Africa is also alarming. Data by the World Bank reports that 6 out of 10 people have no access to electricity, and about 80 percent of those in rural areas lack electricity access. But there is good news with waste. Africa’s epidemic of waste may very well contain the seeds of a solution to the energy shortage.

Achieving universal energy access in Africa requires a huge investment of more than $ 1.5 trillion in the energy sector between now and 2050. Without such an investment, sub-Saharan Africa will be home to an estimated 89 percent of the world’s energy poor by 2030.

The high demand for energy in Africa has prompted the needed desire to convert the mounting piles of waste to energy – and some countries are already showing how that can be done.

The Reppie thermal plant in Ethiopia| Photo source: Government of Ethiopia

The Reppie thermal plant in Ethiopia, Africa’s first waste-to-energy plant, has a capacity to incinerate 1,400 tons of waste per day. It is able to handle 80 percent of Addis Ababa’s waste and converts it to electricity. When full in operation, it will provide 30 percent of the capital city’s needs.

With the help of the China National Electric Engineering Co., the Ethiopian government was able to execute the project to completion. This was with the aim to increase energy availability and accessibility to all citizens in Ethiopia both rural and urban areas.

The 2018 report by the UN Environment says that the African continent recycles only 4 percent of its waste. Its management is still in its infancy. Most countries are still struggling to find a solution to this menace. The Reppie thermal plant will go a long way to realize the recycling of this waste if it is embraced by other countries.

Read: Ethiopia’s waste-to-energy plant is a first in Africa

However, this can only be achieved with legislative backing. The biggest hindrance to environmental protection in Africa is when politicians and leaders have vested interests. Most leaders are owners or have shares with companies that deal with plastics. They, therefore, do not support any initiatives calling for sustainable forestry or ban on single-use plastics. This, in turn, reduces the efforts to sustainable development.

The Government of Kenya is setting the pace for other countries to emulate in the conservation world. In addition to banning plastics, it has called for massive tree planting across the country to try and restore its natural heritage. If the whole continent embraces such activities, we shall effectively conserve our planet and save life on Earth by a large percentage.

Morocco tops in solar energy

Kerosene lamps and sore eyes were once routine elements of grading student homework. Over time, solar electricity has changed that. The sun generously provides lighting for most homesteads in Africa.

African countries are blessed with sunlight all year round. It has 117 percent more sunshine than Germany, the global leader in solar energy. It is a free source of energy that is renewable and clean. This energy can be used to power homes and institutions, reducing the dependence on fossil fuels.

Solar energy is cheap and convenient therefore affordable by many, even the poor. The International Renewable Energy Agency projects that solar power will be the world’s largest source of energy by 2050.

Morocco leads the pack in solar energy in Africa. 32 percent of its energy needs currently comes from renewable sources. It is predicted that by 2020, the country’s dependence on renewable energy will hit 40 percent.

Related article: Solar power: cheap energy source for Africa

 Oil reigns supreme

However, some countries’ reliance on fossil fuels for energy and revenue may be hampering investments in renewables. Nigeria, for example, produces and sells about 2.2 million barrels of oil per day, which accounted for 69 percent of its revenues in 2017 (Nigeria’s Central Bank)

The International Centre for Trade and Sustainable Development stated that Angola, Cote d’Ivoire, Mozambique, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe among other countries, each subsidized fossil fuel production by more than $ 1 billion in 2015.

Despite the commitment of African countries to phase out subsidies, South Africa has tremendously increased its subsidy for fossil fuels from $ 2.9 billion to $ 3.5 billion in 2016. African governments are concerned that phasing out subsidies could trigger hikes in the cost of petroleum products and electricity leading to social unrest.

But all is not lost. Africa is simply tired of being in the dark. It is time to take decisive actions and turn around this narrative- to light up and power. Fingers crossed, Morocco’s success in solar energy development, Ethiopia’s Reppie thermal plant, Kenya’s conservation measures and renewables successes elsewhere may encourage other African countries to pay attention to sustainable practices.

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