Renewable energy has robust future in much of Africa

As Africa gears up for a tripling of electricity demand by 2030, a new Berkeley study maps out a viable strategy for developing wind and solar power while simultaneously reducing the continent’s reliance on fossil fuels and lowering power plant construction costs.


Using resource mapping tools, a UC Berkeley and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory team assessed the potential for large solar and wind farms in 21 countries in the southern and eastern African power pools, which includes more than half of Africa’s population, stretching from Libya and Egypt in the north and along the eastern coast to South Africa.

They concluded that with the right strategy for placing solar and wind farms, and with international sharing of power, most African nations could lower the number of conventional power plants – fossil fuel and hydroelectric – they need to build, thereby reducing their infrastructure costs by perhaps billions of dollars.

“The surprising find is that the wind and solar resources in Africa are absolutely gigantic, and something you could tap into for relatively low cost,” said senior author Duncan Callaway, a UC Berkeley associate professor of energy and resources and a faculty scientist at Berkeley Lab. “But we need to be thinking now about strategies for fostering international collaboration to tap into the resource in a way that is going to maximize its potential while minimizing its impact.”

The main issue, Callaway says, is that energy-generating resources are not spread equally throughout Africa. Hydroelectric power is the main power source for one-third of African nations, but it is not available in all countries, and climate change makes it an uncertain resource because of more frequent droughts.

The team set out to understand where wind and solar generation plants might be built in the future under a range of siting strategy scenarios, and how much renewable generators might offset the need to build other forms of generation.

Based on the team’s analysis, choosing wind sites to match the timing of wind generation with electricity demand is less costly overall than choosing sites with the greatest wind energy production. Assuming adequate transmission lines, strategies that take into account the timing of wind generation result in a more even distribution of wind capacity across countries than those that maximize energy production.

Importantly, the researchers say, both energy trade and siting to match generation with demand reduces the system costs of developing wind sites that are low impact, that is, closer to existing transmission lines, closer to areas where electricity would be consumed and in areas with preexisting human activity as opposed to pristine areas.

“If you take the strategy of siting all of these systems such that their total production correlates well with electricity demand, then you save hundreds of millions to billions of dollars per year versus the cost of electricity infrastructure dominated by coal-fired plants or hydro,” Callaway said. “You also get a more equitable distribution of generation sources across these countries.”

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