RES4Africa’s admirable vision is for the sustainable transformation of Africa’s electricity systems to ensure reliable and affordable electricity access for all.
The IEA Africa Energy Outlook 2022 estimates that achieving universal global access to electricity by 2030 would require annual investments of USD 30 billion from now to 2030, of which around two-thirds are needed in sub-Saharan Africa. As Africa's population is expected to reach approximately 2.5 billion by 2050 it is essential that action is taken now to ensure the electrical infrastructure can serve the continent's growing population.
Africa’s future will be shaped by the decisions made today, and that is why the international community needs to come together to accelerate the investment needed for Africa to harness its vast renewable energy potential. Strategic planning and investment are key to ensure that Africa can benefit from its almost limitless potential of renewable energy and provide universal access to affordable, reliable and sustainable electricity.
The energy transition challenge
Aligned to the SDG7 UN Agenda 2030 goals for affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all by 2030, making a decisive shift from fossil fuels to clean energy is now high on the agenda for Africa’s utilities.
For years, traditional fossil-based systems of energy production and consumption, including oil and gas – have become increasingly expensive. Now though, as fluctuating energy prices continue to expose nations to the challenges of energy security and fossil fuel dependence, securing greener power is no longer only about climate change but also a matter of keeping the lights on.
The result is a period of fundamental change for utilities in the region as it increases renewable energy capacity – predominantly solar and wind generation - at pace.
According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), Africa has 60 percent of the world’s best solar resources, but only 1 percent of the solar generation capacity, and will require $190 billion of investment each year between 2026 and 2023.1 Harnessing this potential will help Africa reduce emissions and widen access to electricity, but in the short to medium term, while infrastructure is updated, utilities face managing this transition while using an aged grid infrastructure that is already being pushed to the limits.
This, in turn, prompts the question – how can utilities manage the evolving current need using the existing grid while preparing for the future?
The Energy of Yesterday
To answer this question, we must first explore the dynamics of existing grid infrastructure.
To say that Africa has an aging electrical grid is an understatement. Africa’s aged grid infrastructure was designed to deal with a steady supply of centrally generated energy, consuming mostly oil (42 percent) followed by gas (28 percent) and coal (22 percent)2. According to a study by ReS4Africa and PwC, underfinancing, inefficiency and insufficient extension of the electricity grid are some of the main obstacles to Africa’s access to energy.3
The result is an age-defining transition for Africa’s utility sector as it shifts from entrenched business models and pivots to a smart new energy system designed to power the continent’s low-carbon future more effectively. But what exactly will the future utility model look like?
The Evolution of Distribution
African Governments are working with global specialists through organizations like RES4Africa to deliver renewable projects in areas that currently have no access to electricity. A proven route to better resilience is the microgrid, which usually involves renewable energy generation options such as solar panels and wind turbines, and some form of energy storage device, invariably a battery, to create a decentralized, self-sufficient energy hub. When it comes to the vital task of electrification, microgrids can act as part of the wider grid while also being able to disconnect from it and operate independently, for example, in the event of a blackout. In this way, microgrids can help African utilities to provide power during peak usage while working to modernize the existing grid infrastructure. A critical component of this marked shift is battery energy storage systems, which offer a highly effective way for utilities to store excess energy and redeploy it when the sun isn’t shining, or the wind isn’t blowing to balance the grid and ensure constant reliability.
Further in the Future
But this is just the beginning. Core to the success of Africa’s new power delivery model will be a leaning to greater digitalization to operate, monitor and deliver more sustainable electricity.
This smart network will utilize the same basic infrastructure we know today, but will also draw on innovative monitoring, control and communications technology that communicate and work together to deliver electricity more reliably and efficiently. Armed with centralized access to this intelligence in real-time, it will become easier to manage spikes in demand and bring down peak loads, providing immediate benefits in terms of cost and reliability. It will also lower operational costs through the ability to detect, isolate and address issues before they escalate.
The bottom line is that as the way we generate, distribute and use energy changes, the very nature of the African power grid will have to evolve. It will become more distributed, more intelligent and more resilient. It will also pivot to a much more collaborative, coordinated approach that involves both the public and private sectors coming together to advance the capability of today’s system.
Yes, this exciting transformation may bring both challenges and opportunity but if the result is a continent powered by reliable, secured and clean energy for all, it is certainly one worth reimagining.
Antonio Martinez Reina, Global Utility and Renewable Leader for ABB Electrification