Renewable energy priorities in East Africa

Posted on December 9, 2014 10:27 am

Strong commitments from governments in East Africa are key to a successful development of renewable energy in the regionThe region is now viewed as an oasis of socioeconomic development and the region’s vibrant economic growth has led to a corresponding increase in energy consumption.East African Community energy ministers have collectively recognized the important role of the energy sector in establishing the economic bloc close to two decades ago and shaping the agenda. In order to reduce the region’s over-reliance on hydro electricity, imported fossil fuels and build a more sustainable and environmentally friendly power supply, EAC member states are exploring the use of alternative energy sources such as nuclear and renewable energy. Renewable energy technologies are still being perfected, and their intermittent power-generating characteristics make them appear less reliable. However, while some countries in East African region have considered the nuclear option for decades, the relatively recent renewable energy sources have already made inroads in the region.In 2013, renewable energy power plants, particularly hydropower and geothermal, made up more than 50 per cent of total power generated in East African region.

Although countries in the region have set higher targets for renewables share in their national energy mix, overall the use of renewables in the region is still limited relative to their potential. In Kenya, wind energy are largely untapped, and the huge solar potential in the region remains underdeveloped.Turkana Wind Power is now Africa’s largest.As the mechanisms of power generation from renewables are different from those of conventional energy sources, adopting renewable energy into existing national energy system is indeed a challenging undertaking. Renewable energy developments are capital intensive, and are far less competitive than the dominant fossil fuel-based energy sources.In addition, renewable energy sources are often located in remote areas, rendering connection to main power grids a significant technical hurdle. Cumbersome administrative processes arising from overlapping and uncertain regulations and a lack of coordination among relevant authorities further hinder renewable energy penetration in the regional energy market. Limited access to financing options and insufficient financial incentives also dissuade investors from participating in renewable energy development in the region. Apart from technical and financial barriers, renewables also have a completely different set of environmental and socioeconomic costs.Although hydropower has fuelled the power trade in the region helping countries meet their rapidly growing demand, hydropower dams have displaced communities like was the case in Ethiopia’s 5GW power plant, undermined the quality and quantity of water supply, and continued to disrupt the livelihood of people living in Turkana River Basin.Land acquisitions for geothermal developments are often met with strong opposition from local populations.

As renewable energy is a relatively new form of energy sources, East African countries governments need to establish investors’ trust of its profitability and people’s trust of its utility and reliability. Efforts to shape conducive environment for renewable energy market are only a part of the equation as buy-in from the public is equally important to support government’s substantial spending on renewable energy and the ensuing infrastructural changes that will come with renewable energy usage. Creating enabling environment for renewable energy investments, which include implementing policies, enacting reliable regulations, and simplifying administrative processes, needs to take place at national level. When it comes to cooperation, East African region need to identify priorities. Of the various recommendations made at the regional level meeting held in Kenyan capital few months ago, there are three collaborative efforts that will collectively accelerate renewable energy development in meaningful ways: first, conduct research to strengthen East African manufacturing capabilities for renewable energy technologies and products; second, establish innovative financing instruments and mechanisms; third, standardise and harmonise EAC-made renewable energy products. Acquiring the capability to manufacture and operate the technologies will make renewable energy significantly cheaper. Having secure financial assistance mechanisms will greatly support renewable energy development in its earlier stages. In addition to that, standardising and harmonising systems before the renewable energy market is fully developed will lay a good foundation for continuing future cooperation. Getting things right from the outset, after all, will cost less than refurbishing them later. To this end, governments in the East African region need to stay strongly committed to renewable energy development.

Contador Harrison