Africa’s electricity capacity is expected to double by 2030, and with the rapid decline in the cost of renewable energy technologies, the continent may look ready to go green. But a new analysis suggests that fossil fuels will continue to dominate Africa’s energy mix for the next decade.
The scientists used an machine learning approach that analyzes what characteristics, such as fuel type and funding, have monitored past successes and failures of power plants across the continent. Their findings suggest that renewable energy sources such as wind and solar power will account for less than 10 percent of Africa’s total electricity generation by 2030, the team reports on Jan. 11 at Nature Energy.
In 2015, 195 nations pledged to reduce their fossil fuel emissions to limit global warming to “well below” 2 degrees Celsius by 2100. To achieve that goal, the world would have to reduce its emissions by 2.7 per cent. one hundred each year from 2020 to 2030 – but current promises are not close enough to achieve that goal (SN: 11/26/19). And the energy demand of developing economies, including many on the African continent, is expected to increase dramatically by 2030, possibly leading to even more fossil fuel emissions over the coming decades.
However, the price of renewable energy technologies, especially wind and solar energy, has fallen rapidly in recent years. Many scientists and activists have said they hope African countries can take advantage of these technologies by skipping carbon-intensive coal or oil-based energy growth and directly building renewable energy plants.
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It is unclear whether this is a realistic scenario, says Galina Alova, a scientist at sustainability at Oxford University. He said there is a lot of uncertainty about how and why new and planned energy projects can succeed or fail on the continent. "We wanted to understand if Africa is really moving in the direction of taking that decisive leap, but we wanted to do it by looking at the data."
Thus, Alova, along with Oxford sustainability scientists Philipp Trotter and Alex Money, has amassed data on nearly 3,000 energy projects, both fossil and renewable fuel-based, that have been commissioned over the past 20 years in 54 African countries. Those projects included successful and failed power plants. The data includes a variety of characteristics for different plants, such as how much energy a given plant can produce, the type of fuel it uses, how well it is connected to an energy grid, who owns the plant, and how is financed.
Then, the team used an machine learning approach by creating a computer algorithm to identify which of these features were the best predictors of success in the past. Finally, the scientists analyzed the chances of success of almost 2,500 projects now underway, based on those characteristics and different characteristics of the country, such as the strength of the economy, population density and political stability.
Those factors at the country level matter, but they weren’t the biggest predictors of a project’s success, Trotter says. "We see some truth for good governance, but the level of design (the factors) has always been more important."
Those factors include the size of power plants and, for example, whether the plants have had public or private funding. Smaller renewable energy plants tended to have better chances of success than larger projects, as did plants with funding from large public financiers, such as the World Bank, which are less likely to withdraw in the face of delays or obstacles. As for the type of fuel, there has been a recent increase in the chances of success for solar energy in particular, the team found, but overall, oil and gas projects are still much more likely to succeed.
What this adds up, according to the team, is that by 2030 fossil fuels will still account for two-thirds of all energy generation on the continent. Renewable energy, especially wind and solar, will account for less than 10 percent, and the rest, about 18 percent of the energy mix, coming mainly from hydroelectric power.
The results were “quite surprising and surprising to me,” says Wikus Kruger, a researcher in the African electricity sector at the University of Cape Town in South Africa who did not participate in the new study. The finding that project-level factors, especially funding, are very significant clues to the research he and others have done, he says. But, he says, he is less convinced that lowering the cost of renewables will not be a major factor.
"We are seeing this huge disruption (in the energy market) in terms of renewable energy costs. It has simply completely changed the way we do planning. The exciting thing about this disruptive moment is that these small renewable energy projects are in conflict. who have historically struggled to do anything, ”Kruger says. "But these are smaller, more modular projects, and people are willing to allocate smaller amounts (of money) to projects that spread the risks in a wide variety of countries."
Another factor that could change the perspective of renewables, says Alova, is that many of the fossil fuel plants that are now in the process have been canceled, what the team calls a "rapid decarbonization shock." But that wouldn’t happen just because of a drop in the cost of renewable energy technologies alone.
Raising the share of renewable energy in Africa’s electricity mix “will not happen automatically by some invisible hand,” Trotter says. "It's something that has to happen from the top, from African governments and the international development community." The danger, he says, is that once a fossil fuel plant goes into production, it will remain in operation for 20 or 30 years, "so it's really important not to be locked into these. What is clear in our dataset is that we have to act now (to cancel those fossil fuel plants); this is not something we can postpone any longer. "