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How green energy will change Africa

In 1977, the average price of generating energy from sunshine was $76.67 a watt. Today, the price has dropped to just $0.60 a watt. It’s a stunning 99.2% drop in 38 years, and solar energy is soon going to reach “grid parity” all over the world – the point where it is cheaper, or at least equivalent in price to grid electricity from conventional sources.

Last month’s successful flight across the Pacific by Solar Impulse, the world’s first fully solar-powered aircraft was a watershed in demonstrating that renewable fuel can indeed do the heavy lifting of modern transportation.

Though the project to fly around the world on the sun’s energy has hit a snag – the 7,200km Japan-Hawaii leg overheated the plane’s batteries, and aircraft is likely to be grounded until 2016 – it nevertheless demonstrates that a fossil fuel free world is actually possible.

Africa is likely to be a mega player on the green energy scene, with the enormous potential for clean and affordable energy. Sudan’s wind alone can power 90% of its electricity needs. East Africa has large geothermal energy potential, while North Africa, South Africa, and the Horn of Africa offer favorable conditions for wind and solar energy.

And with far less invested in conventional generation than other continents, Africa has the potential to leapfrog over old technologies and become a global leader in renewable energy.

Africa attracted more than $8 billion in renewables investment in 2014, a record for the continent. South Africa accounted for the bulk of that at $5.5 billion; the biggest deal was the 100-megawatt Xina Solar One project under development by Abengoa Solar at $1 billion, making it the second-most expensive solar project globally in 2014.

Kenya recently unveiled the $900 million, 310-megawatt wind farm in Lake Turkana, and a $109 million loan from German development bank KfW to the Geothermal Development Company for the drilling of 20 wells at the Bogoria-Silali site.

Algeria and Egypt similarly attracted $428 million and $226 million of renewable energy investment in 2014.

But even as the business case for renewables in Africa is solid, the politics may prove to be quite another story.

Green energy operates by a very different politics and patronage model than conventional sources – and that might ultimately be the deciding factor in whether it is adopted on a large scale in Africa or not.

Many African countries rely on hydro for their power needs, and a few – including South Africa (coal) and the oil-producers, rely on fossil fuels. Most have a mix of the two, especially as climate change makes water levels in dams unreliable.

A dam is a hulking mass of concrete and steel, but it’s often much more than that. Dams – and this could include any mega infrastructure project – are “temples of the modern nation state”, and “set-pieces of nation building” as this research paper memorably puts it, examining the intersection between big dams and politics in the developing world.

As the embodiment of human ingenuity subjugating nature, they are a symbol that a nation has “arrived” on the global stage.

For instance, Ethiopian officials are fond of showing off the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, Africa’s biggest hydropower project yet, and a key source of pride is that it has been built without foreign assistance. Computer-generated images of the finished structure are displayed in government offices and city billboards, and broadcast in repeated specials on the state-owned television channel.

The $3.8 billion GERD is designed to produce 6,000 megawatts, almost triple Ethiopia’s current generating capacity.

As a result, dams are sold on promises – promises of industrial and agricultural revolution, to turn deserts into fields, water into electricity, and ultimately remaking people, from peasants to modern citizens.

It means that the political currency earned by building dam is very high indeed, even surpassing its actual usefulness.

There’s an anecdote told about how officials in newly independent South Sudan resisted the roll-out of mobile coverage in the country, asking, how can people tell that we’ve “brought development” if they don’t see the poles and wires (of landline telephones)? Because you can’t physically see the mobile network, it’s much more difficult to convert it into political mileage.

It’s the same position that renewable energy is likely to find itself in.

The sun and wind is ubiquitous, but paradoxically remote and intangible. You can’t claim ownership; the sun shines on everyone and you can’t touch it, unlike a river that passes through your home village and so you can say it’s “yours”.

With the fall in the price of solar panels and storage batteries, there’s an opportunity for the 600 million households in Africa without electricity to entirely bypass the traditional energy model.

Traditionally, the relationship between a government and its people is one of bartering political support for the provision of certain services, such roads, schools, electricity, water and security.

But today, African life is characterised by an extensive retreat of the state from a range of functions. In Kenya, for example, the number of private primary schools rose nearly 1,000% in just a decade, from in 2001 to 2011, while the number of government primary schools grew just 40%.

In Uganda, the percentage of university students attending private institutions jumped from 9% in 1999 to 74% in 2011. In South Africa, there are more private security guards than police and army combined.

With the possibility of being entirely off-grid, renewables could finalise the disconnection of African everyday life from the happenings in the political sphere.

But even more significantly, it could ultimately signal a shift in the cultural consciousnesss. Each energy source brings certain cultural values, this article by Barry Lord in Newsweek says, either because of what we have to do to get it, or what it makes us believe about the world.

Coal, that powered the Industrial Revolution in the 18th and 19th centuries, fostered the values of discipline and a strong work ethic, just because of how difficult and dangerous it was to get out of the ground.

But oil and gas don’t require masses of poor miners huddled in the ground. The industry needs very few bodies on the ground, but money that flows is seemingly endless. As a result, if fuelled a consumption, consumerist (and corrupt) culture that has come to define the latter half of the 20th century.

But with the shift to renewables, the message is different – it brings with it a “powerful message of stewardship and an abiding concern with sustainability,” Lord writes.

As renewable energy increasingly replaces fossil fuels, the African values of community and guardianship over nature might yet remake the world as we know it.

This article is published in collaboration with Mail & Guardian Africa. Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.

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