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Transmission is the key to unlocking African renewables

Jim Jordan

It doesn’t take more than a glance at a map to recognise that the African continent is enormous. By virtue of its size, the implementation of renewable energy projects and distribution of power faces inevitable challenges: inaccessibility, geography, topography and extreme variations in climate, not to mention hugely disparate political and social economics. How has the continent coped so far in getting power to the people that need it, and what lies ahead?

Renewable energy sources pose greater problems in terms of distribution than conventional power sources. For example, wind farms, solar farms and hydroelectric power plants are, by their very nature, situated in areas that produce optimum power from their source. These locations rarely coincide with those areas that are most populated and energy sources rarely generate power to match the times when it is most needed. Indeed, the largest renewable energy sources tend to be the farthest from significant areas of population. This means the key to successful power generation is transmission.

In 2013, the Kenyan government announced an electrification strategy that was perceived as over-ambitious. Contrary to this belief, during the last four years there has been a significant rise in the proportion of the Kenyan population who have access to electricity, which now stands at an estimated 55%. It’s not unfeasible for the rate to increase over the coming years, but the recent update on the Lake Turkana project demonstrates the key shortcoming when it comes to power on the continent. Despite Africa’s largest wind farm being completed in March, the estimated completion of the transmission link will not be until early 2018.

In contrast to Kenya, less than 15% of the population in each of Liberia and Sierra Leone have access to electricity. Such despairing statistics are due to improve with the operation of the TRANSCO CLSG interconnector, the cross-border energy supply between the Ivory Coast, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea. The project will especially benefit hydro-projects in the region, bringing affordable electricity to thousands of communities.

Interconnectors such as TRANSCO CLSG complement domestic power grids to act as a “supergrid”. The role of a supergrid is to effectively distribute, across borders where appropriate, the increasing amount of energy produced from renewable sources that must be utilised in real time. An advanced distribution network will minimise the amount of energy going to waste through lack of immediate demand.

In addition, technological advances provide opportunities. High voltage direct current (HVDC) cables are being used to transport power to where it is needed and minimise transmission losses associated with alternating current (AC) grids.

Renewable energy has a healthy future in much of Africa, but unfortunately the natural resources are not equally spread throughout the continent. In an article written earlier this year, researchers from UC Berkeley state that international energy trade and strategic siting can enable African countries to pursue renewable energy projects that can compete with conventional generation technologies like coal. Arguably more integral to a successful renewable energy mix is the role of efficient and capable interconnectors. There are numerous interconnector projects in the pipeline, such as the Central African Interconnection Transmission Line, that will help to balance the distribution of the energy mix and facilitate the continued push for renewables in the African markets. With sensible development of grid infrastructure, renewables can overcome the daunting size of Africa.  

The Inside Africa team would like to thank Thomas Widdows, Trainee Solicitor, for his contribution to this blog post.

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Africa is as dynamic a market as it is diverse. We understand that changes impacting your business can arise rapidly and vary significantly across the continent.

Our understanding of Africa’s markets stems from extensive experience on the ground. Through our Inside Africa blog, we aim to apply this insight to provide you with timely commentary on the latest developments across Africa, as well as insight into the many nations that make up this vast continent.

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