03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Right Climate for Green Energy in Africa

The world is greening its electricity supply at a fast (if
not fast enough) pace. Germany is slapping solar on every building it can,
Spain is becoming a world leader in big concentrating solar plants, and
the US stimulus package includes a plateload of subsidies for renewables.
At the same time, the price of solar technologies have fallen 35% since last year, and new breakthroughs in storing energy from the sun and wind appear to be on the cusp.

It’s not just the richest countries tapping into their green: India, which
has up to 48,000 megawatts of wind power to tap,
is already the world’s fourth largest wind-power producer. Its renewable energy
department just announced a plan to electrify rural villages with solar panels.
China -- already a world leader for new wind and solar generation -- is now
planning a solar plant bigger than Manhattan which will power three million homes. This huge project landed its US partner company
on the S&P 500 -- the first renewable-energy company to make the list. 

But Africa, where most of the world’s under-electrified
people reside, is being left in the dark. 
There are some bright spots: good-sized wind projects on the drawing
boards in Kenya and Egypt, geothermal plants powering Kenyan businesses and homes, biomass-electricity in
Mauritius and Liberia,
and a plan for a big solar rollout in South Africa.
But generally, the continent’s energy ministries lag the rest of the world.
Most tellingly, Africa’s biggest renewable proposal -- a huge concentrating
solar plant
planned for the Sahara
-- would likely provide power (lots of it) to Europe.

Many African governments seem to regard renewables as
indulgences for rich nations, and are instead promoting dinosaur projects like
big, destructive dams; dirty coal-fired plants, and even nukes. Yet many of
Africa’s high-priority large hydropower projects will make it harder for the
continent to adapt to its biggest threat, a changing climate.

It’s not that the potential for greener energy projects
isn’t there: the continent has some of the world’s best solar reserves,
plentiful wind along the coasts, geothermal in the East African rift, and other
resources to tap. And unlike big, centralized projects, renewables can be built
in smaller units, more appropriate to the needs of rural African communities
far from established grids. But obstacles abound. The smaller projects have yet
to capture the kind of funding that donor governments have devoted to
high-impact mega-dams and coal-fired plants. African governments have been slow
to develop renewables-friendly policies, remove trade barriers for
renewables-related equipment, and ensure renewable companies access to national
grids. And cost continues to be an issue: not only do most renewables cost more than conventional plants, but the cost of impacts from coal and big hydro continue to be left out of the equation.

One example of a renewables-rich land with few plans to tap
them is Mozambique. The energy ministry wants to build another big dam and a
huge coal plant. Meanwhile, 80% of the
population is without electricity. Virtually the entire output from Mozambique's
existing Cahora Bassa Dam is shipped to its wealthy neighbor, South Africa; a
small amount is shipped back to Mozambique at a higher cost, with much waste
through the shipping of those electrons back and forth across inefficient
transmission systems.

My organization, International Rivers, recently teamed up with local
environmental group Justica Ambiental and a regional energy expert to create a
plan to help steer Mozambique toward a greener energy future – one that shares
the energy wealth around the country while also sparing the Zambezi. “A Clean
Energy Plan for Mozambique”
-- launched
this month in the capital city of Maputo and in South Africa -- outlines the
nation’s potential for a variety of market-ready renewables and pinpoints
potential medium-sized energy projects in all corners of the country. The
report’s findings made headlines across the region, and even the New York Times
energy blogger
up the story.

Yet officials from the national energy agencies reacted as
though we’d just delivered a load of rotting fish. One official went so far as
to call the report’s author a “prostitute” for green groups. The problem: he
criticized the energy sector’s pet project, Mphanda Nkuwa Dam (proposed for the
Zambezi River), for not serving the needs of Mozambique’s population. Like
Cahora Bassa, this dam’s energy will flow directly to South Africa.
Additionally, the costly $2 billion project is likely to sap resources from
renewables programs in the impoverished country.

“As long as the Mozambique’s power planners focus on the
huge consumer next door, they will never adequately meet the needs of their own
country, which remains largely off-grid and unconnected,” says report author
Mark Hankins, an energy consultant from Kenya. “It doesn’t have to be this

And South Africa doesn’t have to exploit its neighbors’
natural resources to improve its energy supply. Hankins says there is huge
potential for cost-effective energy efficiency measures in South Africa that
could greatly reduce the need or new big dams supplying the Southern African
grid. “South Africa has the potential to quickly shave 3 to 5 times
Mozambique’s entire consumption with energy efficiency measures. Demand-side
management, primarily in South Africa, must be considered as an alternative to
endless investment in megadams and coal fired power plants.”

For now, Mozambique seems set on keeping South Africa at the top of
its dance card, and its own people in the dark. But South Africa is changing.
Its utility (one of the world’s largest) has taken some very
encouraging steps in recent months, including establishing “feed-in tariffs”
for a host of renewables -- a key
step in encouraging green-energy projects. Given South Africa’s “600 pound
gorilla” status in the continent’s energy sector, it has the potential to
reverse the notions that renewables are for the rich, and that “cheap energy”
from destructive big dams and dirty coal comes without costs.

The world's richest, highest-carbon-emitting nations also owe it to Africa to help it develop its clean energy resources -- projects that will help in climate-change adaptation efforts, rather than hinder them. Healthy rivers are priceless. Let's not let Africa learn that the hard way.