One big challenge that Africa faces right now is that we are generating far less power than we actually need. More than half the continent's population, 635 million people, do not have access to electricity. A number of big power projects meant to address this problem such as the controversial Grand Inga Dam on the Congo River are stuck in the planning stage thanks to administrative red tape. Other projects such as Gibe III on the Omo River are going forward even with the threats identified to Lake Turkana and its surrounding environment. All these Do we need massive power plants to electrify Sub-Saharan Africa or does it make more sense to invest in smaller, more decentralised power projects?

I posed this challenge to Penelope Yaguma, a MSc graduate in Sustainable Energy Systems from The University of Edinburgh, asking how Africa can produce and distribute clean energy more efficiently so that the continent can power itself and prosper as a result. These are her thoughts on the matter.

"Decentralized projects are cheaper and would typically not require an expensive electricity grid, as the electricity is consumed close to the source", she said. "However, small and decentralised sources are ideal for households, but industries need significantly more power, which these smaller sources will struggle to provide. If we're looking to industrialise, then we need these big, power plants as well."

Perhaps the biggest challenge facing power projects on the continent is the lack of infrastructure, notably expansive electricity grids in most African countries. These grids are essential in that they can handle power from large power plants to deliver this energy to residential and commercial customers. In their absence, people have to resort to generators and solar panels.

Developed countries get much of their power from large coal or oil-burning power plants, precipitating a 'carbon lock-in', where a large fossil fuel-based energy system inhibits public and private efforts to introduce alternative energy technologies. Now that we are trying to move away from these dirty fuels, there are a number of unprecedented challenges in the integration of small and variable renewable energy sources into these grids that were not designed for such purposes.

The lack of proper infrastructure on most of the continent is in itself nothing to celebrate, but it gives us an opportunity to properly plan and build grids that can handle power from renewable sources, as well as fossil fuels. In this regard, one can say we’re at least one hurdle ahead. While the western world is trying to find a way of undoing what they did then, we have no such worries because we have no infrastructure to begin with.

Practical solutions that solve problems rather than postpone them

What we need are solutions that work on ground, not just making the headlines and winning awards. A good reference is the clean-cook stoves that produce less harmful emissions, burn fuel wood longer, and use green charcoal. And this is all brilliant work, but most of it fails to take into account the final product users.

Seemingly trivial factors like the cost of the new stoves and fuels, the kind of pots that will be used on these stoves, and socio-cultural limitations that switching to new stoves may present are hardly, if ever considered. Some people who have tried some of these new stoves claimed that the food tasted different, or that it was impractical to use their pots on them. Unsurprisingly, they later stopped using the new stoves altogether and ‘went back’ to their old ones.

Simply designing better stoves for such communities may not cut it, even with all the health and environmental benefits that they bring. It's not wrong or uncommon to transfer knowledge and innovations from the western world, but we should do so in a non-simplistic manner.

Leapfrogging to cleaner energy systems

What we may lack in finances, technology and skills in Africa, we definitely make up for with our vast resources. Perhaps the most exciting thing about clean energy is that it has created a level playing field for both developing countries and the more developed ones.

Fossil fuels like oil, natural gas, and coal brought about geographical and regional differences. Previously, either a country/region had oil/gas/coal or not. Those who had these resources prospered, and those who didn’t lagged behind.

This isn’t the case with renewable energy - when the sun shines, it doesn't discriminate, and neither does the wind when it blows. This is good news, provided we can tap into these resources.

The African continent is said to receive twice as much solar energy as Germany does, and yet Germany has much more installed capacity (thanks to their engineering and innovation prowess) and it therefore still remains the solar energy world leader. Germany has taken a resource they don't have much of and made something really remarkable of it.

In the same light, not many know that the East African Rift Valley belt currently has one of the world’s largest proven geothermal reserves. In 2010, geothermal alone contributed about 13% of Kenya’s energy mix; and this number should have gone up markedly, following the development of Olkaria geothermal plants – the world’s largest geothermal power plant today!

Admittedly, geothermal energy has not been explored as much as technologies like solar or wind- but that is the good news. Are there any lessons we can learn from Germany about this? Definitely.

Who will pick up the tab?

Despite the impressive progress made in the clean energy realm - the plummeting price of solar photovoltaic technologies for instance - renewables are still more costly than fossil fuels. So, who will pay for clean energy?

There are several funding avenues available. For larger projects, for example, there's the world Bank, AfDB, some developed country-developing country collaborations such as the USAID Power Africa initiative. For smaller decentralized projects, private developers, or users pay themselves with the help of innovative credit schemes such as the M-KOPA solar model.

One major concern raised by developing countries is how to finance their climate change initiatives. The Green Climate Fund, which was created to help limit greenhouse gas emissions in developing countries, is of particular interest. In its initial fund raising move, the fund received about US$10.3 billion in pledges from developed countries, in addition to multilateral development banks that also chipped in and promised to double or triple their contribution to climate change financing. A rational area of concern however, is whether these pledges will actually materialize and be channeled to developing countries transparently.

At the 2009 COP15 summit in Copenhagen, developed countries promised a climate finance contribution of US$30 billion for the period 2010-2012, and to mobilize long-term finance of a further US$100 billion a year by 2020 from a variety of sources. Estimates show that only about US$50 billion was raised in 2013, followed by USD 60 billion in 2014. Although these figures look promising and on track to meet the 2020 target, some entities have voiced reservations about the accuracy of the reported amounts, and further cited various challenges associated with the administration of these funds.

Governments have a role to play

We need to highlight the role of governments in putting in place policies that encourage clean energy investment, such as feed-in tariffs and reduced import tariffs on clean energy products.

There is a growing interest in energy development in Sub-Saharan African countries as a way to support sustainable growth through increasing the amount of electricity produced from renewable sources. These sources can offer off-grid electrification in rural areas where national grids are non-existent. Larger projects are coming online, but they need a proper grid in order to ensure that the power is distributed to the areas that need it most.

There are several hurdles that need to be overcome in order to produce and distribute electricity to consumers in Africa, ranging from individual systems to power single homes, to mini-grids that can electrify a whole village, and ultimately to national grids that connect entire countries. Effective policy mechanisms for energy promotion are needed at every stage, so that Africa's vast energy potential can be used to power the continent's progress.

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