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USA/Africa: Renewable Energy Advances on Many Fronts

AfricaFocus Bulletin
May 7, 2018 (180507)
(Reposted from sources cited below)

Editor's Note

Resistance to rapid renewable energy expansion is still high, despite the acknowledged costs in climate change. The U.S. Power Africa initiative still funds predominately natural gas, although its investment in renewables is growing. In Kenya, the Kenyan and Chinese governments are pushing ahead with a coal-fired generation plant in Lamu, despite strong resistance from local environmentalists and the fact that China is rapidly abandoning coal at home. Nevertheless, technological changes and rising awareness of the damage done by fossil fuels are propelling new advances on many fronts.

This AfricaFocus Bulletin contains links and brief excerpts from articles and reports documenting both progress and the potential for more rapid progress for renewable energy on several fronts in the African context. Particularly notable are reports on off-grid solar, the best known option for rural African households; on solar and wind mini-grids, which have great potential which is also beginning to received significant investment, and on the steadily increasing role of renewable energy in the Power Africa portfolio, in contrast to the "all of the above" mantra as initially launched by the Obama administration.

Also of note are the increasing scope of civil society protests as well as broader international trends in driving the turn away from fossil fuels. This is highlighted in particular by the continuing resistance to the Lamu coal project in Kenya, and by the advance of renewable energy in the United States despite the campaign against it being waged by the Trump administration.

The Lamu project is the focus of the Decoalonize initiative ( The Africa affiliates of the project ( are also active, particularly in South Africa and Ghana. The Pan African Climate Justice Alliance ( brings together national and regional coalitions from around the continent. And the Africa Renewable Energy Initiative ( brings together African governmental agencies to shape a continent-wide framework.

On May 25, climate justice groups in Africa will be holding "Fossil Free" protests in at least eight countries.

Another AfricaFocus Bulletin released today and available at, contains two recent articles on the progress of renewable energy even in Trump's America, by leading climate action advocates Bill McKibben and Joe Romm.

For previous AfricaFocus Bulletins on climate and the environment, visit

++++++++++++++++++++++end editor's note+++++++++++++++++

Off-grid solar market returns to robust growth, according to latest sector report

Apr 26, 2018 – Direct URL:

The off-grid solar sector has returned to robust growth, reversing a brief dip in sales that was mostly due to localized shocks, according to a new report released today by the World Bank Group’s Lighting Global program and the Global Off-Grid Lighting Association (GOGLA).

The latest Global Off-Grid Solar Market Report shows that during the second half of 2017, participating companies reported sales of 4.14 million off-grid solar products - a jump of 18 percent compared to the first half of the year.

This generated $115 million in cash revenues for the sector, up 20 percent on the previous six months. For the first time, the report also captured the amount of solar capacity installed by participating companies: 22 megawatts between July and December 2017.

Russell Sturm, the Global Head of Energy Access at IFC, a member of the World Bank Group, says clean, affordable off-grid energy solutions are delivering crucial private sector growth in emerging economies.

“Innovation and investment are catalyzing a revolution in energy access”, said Sturm. “Recent findings suggest that the market will grow by around 25 percent year-on-year, providing improved energy access to 740 million people by 2022. That’s a very powerful prospect.”

The quality of off-grid products has also improved. The report shows that since the start of 2016 alone products sold have become, in aggregate, 43 percent brighter. This enhances security while also providing students with the opportunity to study at night, or for workers to engage in income generating activities.

The number of people accessing larger systems - which can power multiple lights or appliances such as radios, fans and televisions - has also grown. Today, over two million people have access to Tier 2 energy services through off-grid solar products: 350,000 more than in the same period of 2016.

The latest edition in this series of semi-annual sales reports uses data provided by 67 GOGLA members and companies whose products meet Lighting Global quality standards. These companies represent an estimated 30 per cent of the total off-grid solar market, and have sold 34.8 million off-grid solar lighting and energy products since 2010.


Minigrids Are the Cheapest Way to Bring Electricity to 100 Million Africans Today

A CrossBoundary analysis shows why minigrids are vital to achieving affordable, sustainable, modern energy for all.

by Matthew Tilleard, Gabriel Davies and Lucy Shaw

Greentech Media, April 20, 2018 – Direct URL:

By all measures, Africa is currently losing the battle to end energy poverty by 2030.

U.N. Sustainable Development Goals commit the global community to delivering access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all. One barrier to success is the ongoing political debate about how best to provide power to the more than 600 million people in Africa without access to electricity. Vested interests, inertia, aversion to change — all traits of the energy sector — do not lend themselves to speed, nor to innovation.

The debate has huge financial, economic and social implications. To solve it, empirical questions on technical feasibility and cost must be solved. At the same time, tough judgments about what quality of power people should receive, how much they should pay for it, and the role of the private sector vs. the public sector must also be addressed.

Three main ways exist for providing electricity access: 1) extension of the existing electricity infrastructure (i.e., “main grid extension”); 2) minigrids; and 3) standalone solar home systems (i.e., residential solar). All three have a role to play.

Minigrids are self-sufficient electricity grids with their own power generation, storage and transmission capacities. They can serve households and businesses isolated from or integrated with the main grid.

The potential for minigrids to play a role in universal electrification in Africa has been well recognized. Beyond their ability to integrate with the main grid, they are also the least-cost option for many people in rural Africa. The International Energy Agency in 2014 estimated that minigrids could serve 140 million people by 2030. In an updated projection last year, it put that number at 290 million, or more than double the original estimate.

This minigrid in Niger can provide power to a village. IRENA is providing grids and home solar kits to 100 rural villages. Credit: IRENA.

However, actual minigrid deployment is still extremely limited. As such, justifiable skepticism exists on whether this potential can be fulfilled.

In an effort to put that skepticism to rest, CrossBoundary developed a new analysis to calculate the minimum number of people in Africa who can be most cheaply connected by minigrids today, compared to the two other options.

Why is this important? Because when governments, donors and investors do reach consensus, they mobilize billions of dollars to support millions of connections. The pay-as-you-go solar home system sector in Africa — comprising systems serving single households — raised over $750 million from 2012 to 2017. This is dwarfed by the investments that single countries are making on expanding their existing grid infrastructure. For instance, the Kenyan government is investing $1.4 billion, supported by $675 million from the World Bank, African Development Bank and other development funders to build generation capacity, transmission lines and distribution networks.

In comparison to those sectors, the top five minigrid developers in Africa have raised less than $100 million over the last five years.

To help establish this "minimum role," CrossBoundary has undertaken a least-cost analysis (based on “like-for-like” connections — average 100 watts per household) in order to estimate the number of people for whom minigrids are the cheapest way to connect today. We took the most conservative view possible. No projections on population growth, no future cost reductions on minigrids, and no assumptions beyond minimum quality of power required. We used the costs now, for the people who live off-grid now.

What is the minimum number of people in Africa for whom minigrids are the most costeffective option?

As the chart below [available in full article] shows, of the three paths, no single means of electrification is always the cheapest. Main grid extension is generally the least-cost option for people who already live close to the grid (such as urban and peri-urban populations). Minigrids are usually least-cost for people who live so far from the main grid that extension costs are higher than installing local generation and storage capacity, but in a location densely populated enough to support the fixed costs of building the minigrid infrastructure. Solar home systems are the least cost for everyone else -– those living in sparsely populated areas, where running poles and wires from even a local minigrid becomes expensive.


How did we develop our minimum answer?

CrossBoundary started by combining the data on existing and planned high-voltage transmission lines from the World Bank with data on the population density of Africa by square kilometer from WorldPop. This allowed us to map out where each square kilometer of population is relat

[more detail, with tables and graphs, in the full article available at the link above]

So, returning to the original question: Should minigrids have a role in delivering universal access in Africa?

Yes, because they are the cheapest way to deliver power for at least 100 million people.

Our minimum analysis approach compares well with more complex and optimistic models. Other published estimates have more complex methodology and also projections on minigrid cost reductions and population growth. We are right at the lower end of estimates made by UN-DESA and IEA, both using the KTH Royal Institute of Technology model. The striking increase in IEA’s estimate from 140 million in 2014 to 290 million in 2017 is driven by falling costs of solar, better information on population densities, and rollout plans of the existing grid. Our analysis establishes a minimum number that the most hardened skeptic can accept. These models establish more realistic estimates for those who already see the potential of mini-grids.

Tracking Power Africa: Lessons and best practices in energy access

Oxfam America and Sierra Club

April 2018

[Brief excerpts only: full report available at]

Executive Summary

Significant financial investment is required to achieve universal energy access, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa where the problem is especially acute. Access to energy is essential in building livelihoods and economic opportunity across sectors such as agriculture, health, and education.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates that approximately $43 billion is required annually to provide electricity to the 1.1 billion people around the world presently lacking it. The majority of these energy-poor people are also most at risk to have their livelihoods impacted by climate change. There is, hence, increased urgency to reduce emissions from the energy sector, raising questions on the best forms of technology in achieving energy access and how best to finance them.

Power Africa is a US government-led public-private financing initiative with the goals to add more than 30,000 megawatts (MW) of “cleaner, more efficient electricity generation” and to increase electricity access by adding 60 million new connections in sub-Saharan Africa. Power Africa operates across multiple US government agencies and has employed most forms of conventional energy technologies in its four years of operation. This report presents an independent analysis of Power Africa’s portfolio in order to inform the broader energy-access financing agenda.

Process and Top Line Findings

The report’s authors analyzed the entire Power Africa portfolio through March 2017, drawing from multiple agencies, including the US Agency for International Development’s (USAID’s) Power Africa Tracking Tool (PATT), a tool that tracks the first of three Power Africa goals, called “pillars”: the generation of energy, measured in megawatts. (Power Africa’s three goals are (1) generation,(2) connections, and (3) unlocking energy sector potential.) The report assesses four categories: the breakdown of projects across the different US government agencies, the technologies employed, the target countries, and the breakdown of spending for on- and off-grid investments.

The analysis considered 371 projects, amounting to more than 22,900 megawatts (MW) of generation potential and $52 billion total expected investment. Information on what financing had been approved was only available for 178 projects, amounting to 3,500 MW of new generation potential and totaling $3.5 billion of approved US financing for $12.2 billion of anticipated investment.


Support for Off-Grid Projects Still Falls Short But is Trending inn The Right Direction

To achieve universality, energy access financing requires that the majority of financing—approximately 71 percent, according to the IEA—should support off-grid projects. Overall, Power Africa is trending in the right direction with financing increasing over the years for off-grid projects. The Beyond the Grid subinitiative (BTG) was specifically established in order to achieve its connection goal of 60 million new connections.

Aggregate information provided by Power Africa shows that, as a percentage, Power Africa has increased spending toward its connections goal, where it now represents approximately one- third of its budget. Of the 178 projects tracked in this report’s analysis where approved financing data was available, off-grid projects only represent 10 percent of financing approved within the initiative so far. While much of the data was only available from projects for the megawatt goal (generation), it is clear that Power Africa should continue to increase funding toward off-grid projects.

High-risk projects with little development and access potential receive significant support. Projects that have high social, environmental, and climate risk while having a less direct impact on development and energy access—such as heavy fuel oil and natural gas—represent a major component of Power Africa’s footprint. Africa has a significant generation gap, which the megawatts goal of the initiative is attempting to help address. However, adding more megawatts cannot be a goal unto itself, as many separate studies have shown that the development benefits of such projects for local communities are often difficult to track.


Fuel Sources

The US government provides more financing to natural gas—over $740 million—than to any other fuel source. The fact that the US government provides both the largest amount of financing as well as the largest amount of megawatts to natural gas demonstrates the US government’s reliance on natural gas in meeting its Power Africa goals. There is very little evidence that natural gas development increases energy access. It is unclear that this or any other large centralized power plants actually improve the economic livelihoods of poor people, a stated goal of Power Africa. For example, the Azura-Edo natural gas power plant in Nigeria failed to connect the communities that resided closest to the plant, thus failing to provide them with any economic gains. Moreover, natural gas is a much higher-risk project given that it contributes to climate change by releasing methane at every point in its life cycle—extraction, transportation, processing, and consumption. Because methane is far more potent than carbon dioxide in terms of its warming potential, 20 some studies find it to be almost as bad, if not as bad or worse than coal.




Although Power Africa has recognized the importance of mini- and off-grid renewables with increased financing for off-grid projects trending upwards, an even greater emphasis on such projects would improve the initiative’s energy access goals. There is still significant support for projects with high levels of social, environmental, and climate risk, with these projects typically offering little to no benefit for development or energy access. A different model that moves away from rewarding large, polluting companies like ContourGlobal—responsible for the Cap des Biches project—and, instead, nurturing innovative, community-supported organizations is required.

Other related articles

Dorothy Otieno, "Why coal has no place in Kenya’s energy future: Economic and environmental realities spur countries across the world to close coal power plants," Kenya Daily Nation, April 14, 2018

"A all in the cost of renewable energies, ever-improving technologies and the threat of climate change have all come together to make wind and solar energy more attractive than coal across the world. Still coal accounts for 40 per cent of global electricity, according to the World Bank.

Kenya is set to build a 981.5 megawatt (MW) coal-fired thermal electricity-generating plant in the Manda Bay area, Lamu County, even as costs of renewable energies are falling dramatically and fuelling a push to phase out coal power generation around the world."

Derrick Jackson, "Catching a Breeze," American Prospect, Spring 2018

"There no longer is any comparison with coal, which Trump touted as beautiful and clean in his January State of the Union address. While at most 1,000 coal jobs were added in Trump’s first year, the wind industry added 25,000 jobs in 2016, according to Trump’s own Department of Energy. In 2012, there were nearly 90,000 coal-mining jobs and 80,000 wind energy jobs. Today, with cheap natural gas and the rapid advance of technology that makes renewable energy cost-competitive, there are more than 100,000 manufacturing, construction, and operations jobs in wind, nearly double coal’s now 52,000."

"WindEurope anticipates that offshore wind will account for 7 percent to 11 percent of the EU’s electricity demand by 2030, and that all wind energy will provide between a quarter to nearly a third of demand. But with the cost of offshore wind dropping and technology improving so rapidly, the group said offshore wind could produce a quarter of EU demand on its own by 2030."

"Climate Change Could Force Over 140 Million to Migrate Within Countries by 2050" World Bank Report, March 19, 2018

"The worsening impacts of climate change in three densely populated regions of the world could see over 140 million people move within their countries’ borders by 2050, creating a looming human crisis and threatening the development process, a new World Bank Group report finds

But with concerted action - including global efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions and robust development planning at the country level – this worst-case scenario of over 140m could be dramatically reduced, by as much as 80 percent, or more than 100 million people.

The report, Groundswell – Preparing for Internal Climate Migration, is the first and most comprehensive study of its kind to focus on the nexus between slow-onset climate change impacts, internal migration patterns and, development in three developing regions of the world: Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and Latin America."

Ahmed Mokgopo, "How a Development Bank is Propping Up the Fossil Fuel Industry in South Africa. And Why it Must Reverse Course," Common Dreams, April 27, 2018

South Africa is grappling with a serious energy crisis.

Communities across the country are crippled by the lack of electricity, a situation worsened by the widespread lack of jobs. A straightforward solution to both problems would be investing in distributed and small scale renewable energy, particularly in rural areas.

Instead, the country is still doubling down on coal, with a new coal fired power plant called Thabametsi set to open in Lephalale, Limpopo province. Regrettably, the project can count on the financial contribution of the Development Bank of Southern Africa (DBSA)

AfricaFocus Bulletin is an independent electronic publication providing reposted commentary and analysis on African issues, with a particular focus on U.S. and international policies. AfricaFocus Bulletin is edited by William Minter.

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