4 signs Africa could leapfrog fossil fuels (and 1 that it won't)

Solar Aid supports photovoltaics in Africa photo

Image credit: "techno-leapfrogging" the oil and coal paradigm. It's a tantalizing and not entirely unrealistic prospect. After all, a continent where many communities bypassed the era of the landline knows a thing or two about avoiding out-of-date technology.

There are some tantalizing signs that this is beginning to happen.

Large-scale solar is taking off in Africa
Google solar project south africa© Google

As I reported earlier in the week, Kenya just announced an ambitious, short-term push to build nine massive solar power plants - enough to power half of the country's electricity needs. Meanwhile Google is investing in a 96MW solar plant in South Africa.

Solar lighting is replacing kerosene

At the other end of the spectrum, micro-solar is having a huge impact on the rural poor, replacing dirty, dangerous kerosene with a far superior technology. This isn't just about the immediate benefits, through micro-entrepreneurship programs, this effort may kickstart small-scale solar economies—enabling everything from solar powered irrigation, internet access and cell phones. (Solar and wind are also being used to power cell phone infrastructure.)

Rural microgrids are becoming more viable

solar africa nursing college photoComputer Aid International/Video screen capture

Between the totally distributed off-grid applications and the massive, centralized utility-scale projects, there's a tantalizing middle way. As I reported over at MNN, there's increasing interest across the world in the idea of microgrids. In theory, at least, these interconnected networks of power generation, storage and usage allow for a more resilient, dynamic use of whatever power is available—including more effective matching of supply and demand. There's already been work to use microgrids to electrify villages in India. Given the immense costs of connecting rural African communities to a centralized grid, microgrids may be essential for clean energy in Africa. It's not all plain sailing though. As MIT Technology Review reported back in 2012, south africa wind farm photo

The sun isn't Africa's only renewable resource—the continent has great potential for wind power too.
South Africa has begun to support wind power development, and with East Africa rethinking its reliance on drought-vulnerable hydropower, wind and solar look increasingly attractive.

And for the naysayers: fossil fuels are still immensely powerful

Coal plant smokestacksWikimedia/Public Domain

For all the talk of leapfrogging, we'd be foolish to think of this as inevitable. Africa is also home to an abundance of fossil fuel resources, many of them un- or underdeveloped. And it is also in the sights of powerful corporate interests deeply invested in the extractive economy. In South Africa, for example, the promising signs of renewables development are tempered by a simmering struggle with the dominant power of the coal industry. A recent report from Yale360 explains that this conflict is deeply rooted in the country's political status quo:

Despite the newfound interest in renewables, coal’s days in South Africa are far from over. The government plans to increase coal exports and the production of electricity from coal. Observers say this is because coal is seen as cheap, the industry has a long history of delivering reliable power, and influential people — including President Jacob Zuma’s son and some of his African National Congress (ANC) party’s funders — have financial interests in so-called "black gold."

The idea of Africa leapfrogging fossil fuels is an attractive one, particularly given the continent's vulnerability to climate change. But nothing about sustainability is a foregone conclusion. Those of us who have benefitted from coal-powered western economies would do well to not preach to Africa about the need for "abstinence", but rather support Africans' efforts to forge a better path. After all, Africa will be living with the consequences of our emissions for centuries to come.