Once our ancestors learnt the benefits of rubbing two sticks together to create fire, they never looked back. Fire provided a reliable source of heat, warmth and light. Unfortunately, little has changed in the past 100,000 years for many people in Africa and resources are running out. Sustainable energy is the obvious solution, but are these technologies a practical solution on a continent where a lack of financial resources is a reality?
These types of energy are vital, especially in remote areas. Apart from the obvious advantages of sustainable energy, it erases the excessive cost of transmission from power plants. Renewable energy clearly has the potential to alleviate many of the problems Africans face.
The United Nations estimates that half a billion people live without electricity and three-and-a-half billion still rely on primitive fuels such as wood or charcoal for cooking and heating. Apart from biomass, many African families also use paraffin for cooking. Paraffin is very dangerous and is often ingested by children, who develop chemical pneumonia. Paraffin stoves are dangerous and the cause of many injuries and loss of property.
In sub-Saharan Africa, more than 70% of the population lives without access to electricity. Energy is arguably the most important resource we have. With enough energy, we solve the issue of water scarcity, which also addresses a majority of our health problems. Energy also brings light and internet connectivity, which facilitates education, which in turn, reduces poverty. Energy aids in the promotion of economic growth, improvement in agriculture, communication technology and industrialisation.
Energy poverty in Africa doesn’t have to be a permanent reality. Nigeria has enough oil for the entire continent; there is the wind and a lot of sunshine. The sun is decentralised, fully democratic and freely available to everyone. Africa has large underutilised deserts and lies within latitudes with high solar isolation levels. We have lacked the technology to access it, but in recent years that has started to change.
Kenya became the midwife of mobile money transfer using a technology it did not invent. Africa can do for renewable energy what it did for mobile communication. With our lack of existing energy infrastructures, it makes sense that renewable energy, like mobile education, will become a priority on the continent.
In 2008, Ray Kurzweil pointed out that there is 10,000 times more sunlight than we need to meet 100% of our energy needs on the planet, and that the technology needed for collecting and storing it is about to emerge as the field of solar energy is advancing exponentially. That Law of Accelerating Returns yields a doubling of price performance in information technologies every year.
Solar and wind power then supplied about 1% of the world's energy needs but he predicted advances in technology were about to expand with the introduction of nano-engineered materials, enabling solar panels to be more efficient, lighter and easier to install. That prediction is becoming a reality.
David Wheeler, a research fellow at the Centre for Global Development, found that Africa has nine times the solar potential of Europe and an annual equivalent to 100- million tons of oil. When coupled to its vast reserves of wind, geothermal and hydroelectric, the continent has enough energy to meet its own needs and export the surplus to Europe. Perhaps Africa’s greatest asset in exploiting this vast potential for renewable energy lies in the paradoxical fact that it has a relative absence of existing energy infrastructure.
Just as Africa’s lack of copper landlines allowed for the explosive deployment of wireless systems, its lack of large-scale, centralised coal and petroleum power plants could pave the way for decentralised, renewable-power-generation infrastructures.
Sources and further reading:
Diamandis, H.P and Kotler, S. 2012. Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think
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