The Narrative of the Case for Renewables in Africa Needs to Change

There are a plethora of articles, papers and stories written on how renewable energy technologies and energy efficiency measures can assist address the numerous energy challenges facing many countries in Africa. Curiously and worryingly however, the rationale for promoting renewable energy and energy efficiency in national energy policies is not well disseminated while the debate on the low carbon energy access agenda continues to be very donor driven leaving domestic governments to play a regulatory and policy-setting role. This partly explains why the business-as-usual approach in the energy sector is still followed across much of the landscape. 

National energy policies for most countries in sub-Saharan Africa tend to mainly concentrate on conventional energy systems (i.e. electricity and petroleum) which serve a smaller proportion of the populace at the expense of small-scale renewable energy options, which serve the bulk of the population, but receive limited budgetary (and policy) support. Since renewables and energy efficiency are now among the priority options to increase the provision of modern energy services to the bulk of the population, it is often being driven by climate change and environmental drivers that do not resonate in Africa. As a result, renewables and energy efficiency development has been ad hoc and not explicitly linked to national energy plans.

Stressing the environmental benefits of renewable energy will not be entirely effective in engendering support for renewable energy and energy efficiency in the region. The African region is not yet a major emitter of greenhouse gases associated with climate change, implying the beneficial case of renewable energy and energy efficiency systems narrative is likely to be more successful if advanced on the basis of their socio-economic benefits and long-term cost advantages. Likewise, reframing the debate from cutting emissions to rapidly scaling up renewable energy in confronting climate change will go along way in attracting the level of investment or policy commitment needed for widespread adoption of all forms of renewable energy.

The upcoming Fifth International Forum on Energy for Sustainable Development to be held in Hammamet, Tunisia, on 4-6 November 2014 will see a new UN Development Account (UNDA) project “Promoting Renewable Energy Investments for Climate Change Mitigation and Sustainable Development” launched by the Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA) and the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE). It will further advance the implementation of the regional and continental initiatives already on the ground for further utilization of renewable energy in Africa. 

The need to improve modern energy services for the poor particularly in the sub-Saharan Africa region where it is acute needs to be accompanied by demystifying the case for renewable energy and energy efficiency whose support on the whole appears luke-warm. Only then will initiatives such as the formation of an Africa Clean Energy Corridor to help leap frog the continent to renewable energy will effectively make our economies more competitive as others across the developing world markets. African countries need it to lift its population out of massive energy poverty and achieve sustainable economic development.