Africa’s Energy Future: A Dynamic Part of the 21st Century

Africa is the world’s second largest continent, smaller in land area only to Asia. It’s population, at 1.1 billion in 2013, ranks second as well to Asia and accounts for about 15% of the world’s human population. It is a continent with serious problems as well as significant potential for addressing many of these problems in the decades ahead. Critical to this potential is development of Africa’s energy resources.


An important fact about Africa, which has 54 countries and 11 other ‘territories’, is that its population is the youngest among all the continents: more than half of Africans are less than 20 years old. Algeria is the largest African country by land area, while Nigeria has the largest population (174 million). The continent’s population grew 73% between 1990 and 2013, is estimated to top 2 billion in 2050, and The World Bank has declared “..25 of the 54 countries to be in an energy crisis.”

What is the current status of Africa’s economy and its energy production and consumption? The World Bank estimates that in 2012 Africa’s economy was one sixteenth (6%) of the U.S. economy, and that Africa’s infrastructure is “..the most deficient and costly in the developing world.” In Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) only about 25% of the population has access to electricity, in contrast to about 50% in South Asia and 80% in Latin America and MENA (Middle East and North Africa). In addition, electricity has reached only wealthy, urban middle class, and commercial sectors, bypassing rural and urban poor populations – e.g., less than 2% of the rural poor in Malawi, Chad, Niger, and Ethiopia have access to electrical power. And even in areas covered by the grid electricity supply is often unreliable. Total energy consumption in Africa is about 5,000TWh (16 quads), just 3% of global consumption.

Low levels of electrification occur despite the fact that Africa is rich in energy resources. Unfortunately, most of these resources remain untapped and, overall, Africa is a net energy exporter (40% in 2009).

What are these resources and where are they located?


South Africa, a unique country in Africa in terms of developing its energy resources, has the globe’s sixth largest known coal reserves and most of its electricity today is derived from burning coal. It also has large renewable resources (solar, wind, hydropower, biomass, wave energy) that, so far, it has had little motivation to develop. More generally, the African Energy Policy Network estimates that Africa has the world’s third largest crude oil reserves (behind the Middle East and Latin America), the third largest traditional natural gas resources (behind the Middle East and Europe), the second largest uranium resources (behind Australia), and lots of hydropower and other renewable energy resources. To date less than 10% of these hydropower resources have been tapped, and well under 1% of the geothermal resources. Africa’s renewable energy potential is discussed in more detail below.

An important meeting of African Energy Ministers took place in Johannesberg, South Africa in September 2011, to prepare for the upcoming COP 17, the 17th Conference of the Parties of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change to be held in Durban later that year. It produced an eloquent declaration that identified “..priorities for supporting Africa’s energy development agenda in a sustainable manner”. Included among these priorities was “Prioritising clean energy: Africa is richly endowed with renewable energy resources – many of which may be developed in support of a low-carbon future for the continent. With the support of financing, technology and institutional capacity building from developed countries Africa will be able to greatly enhance its economic, social and environmental development using a diversity of clean energy sources.” Several institutions have accepted the challenge of helping Africa in its development, including the African Development Bank (AfDB), the World Bank (WB), as well as the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), corresponding organizations in the European Union and its member states, and in other developed countries. All have recognized that Africa is at a crossroads with respect to its future energy development and the resultant impact on economic development. Solutions will require distributed renewable energy generation as the only practical means of meeting rural electrification needs, boosting cross-border power trade, improving the infrastructure capabilities and management of existing electric utilities, and assistance in planning low-carbon development paths. Putting this issue in context, H.E. Andris Piebalgs, Commissioner for Development Cooperation with the European Commission (AEEP/Africa-EU Energy Partnership) has stated: “No energy means no sustained or sustainable economic growth, no sustainable agriculture, no quality healthcare, no decent education. In short, no energy means no development.”

The renewable energy resources are extensive, but in most cases not yet well documented. There is a critical need for resource assessment in Africa, an essential step in developing bankable renewable energy projects. While resource assessment costs are small compared to the eventual costs of large scale deployment, it is often overlooked early on, as it was in the early days of renewable energy development in the U.S. It took several years to obtain adequate funding from the U.S. Congress for DOE’s resource assessment program.

Most parts of Africa receive more than 300 days per year of bright sunlight, which corresponds to more than 80% of Africa’s land area receiving 2,000 kilowatt-hours (kWh) per square meter per year. This is comparable to the numbers for the most solar-intensive parts of the best solar energy states in the U.S. (New Mexico, Arizona and California).

Hydropower is another large renewable energy resource in Africa that is only being partially tapped.


Currently installed capacity is 20,300MW, with another 2,400MW under construction. More than 60,000MW are being planned, with an estimated theoretical potential of 1,750 TWh of energy delivery.

African wind and wave energy resources are also large. Africa has a very large coastline, where wind power and wave power resources are abundant but poorly assessed and underutilized in the north and south. While the 1,100MW of installed wind power on the continent currently makes up only 1% of total electricity supply, at least another 10,500MW are in the pipeline and much more is expected. Most of this activity is on Africa’s western coast.

Geothermal resources are abundant as well, as shown in the following map:


It is mostly concentrated in the area of the East African Rift, a 3,700 mile long geological feature that stretches across thirteen countries from Eritrea in the north to Mozambique in the south. With the exception of Kenya, which is one of the top 10 producers of geothermal energy in the world (250MW installed; another 280MW scheduled for commission in 2014) geothermal exploration and development has been limited. Kenya’s estimated geothermal potential is about 10,000MW. In contrast, other countries that straddle the Rift Valley have carried out no or limited exploration of geothermal resources. Ethiopia is the only other Rift Valley country to have installed geothermal power generation (currently 7MW but under expansion to 70MW).

Finally, Africa has tremendous potential for utilization of biomass energy, its oldest and most widely used source of energy, but to date this resource is also poorly assessed. IRENA, the international Renewable Energy Agency with headquarters in Abu Dhabi, supported a literature review and published a report in 2013 (‘Biomass Potential in Africa’) that concluded that “Due to the large range in results presented by the reviewed studies, no definite figures regarding the availability of biomass can be provided.” This needs to change if decision makers are to make appropriate use of this widely abundant resource.

I will conclude this brief overview of energy in Africa by quoting the Director General of IRENA, Adnan Amin. In an article published just a few days ago in the journal ‘TheNational’ (‘Renewable Energy will power Africa’s ambitious future’) he states: “Africa is blessed with plentiful land and natural resources. Prodigious sunshine blankets the continent for much of the year, ideal conditions for solar power. Hot rocks in areas such as the Rift Valley store geothermal energy. Vast plains and mountain ranges are great sites for wind turbines while mighty rivers like the Zambezi can be harnessed for hydropower projects. Finally, biomass is abundant – all providing multiple opportunities for renewable energy production.”

I will also quote from a brief speech to the Brookings Institution in February by U.S. Senator Chris Coons of Delaware: “From urbanization and economic growth, to public health and energy, Africa is developing at a pace that rivals nearly every other region of the world. It is truly the continent of the 21st century. ” Clearly, Africa’s exciting energy and development future awaits.

Gustaf Olsson

Excellent overview. We need to recognize that Africa is a rich continent, but too often we have focused on the crises and the problems. These problems are too often created by the rich part of the world. Oil spills in Nigeria over 50 years are estimated to 1.4-2 million m3, compared with the Mexican Gulf accident, spilling some 780,000 m3.

What is missing is often capital resources to develop the energy resources in Africa. Furthermore, we can not simply copy our energy and distribution systems from the rich countries, but have to be open to other kind of solutions. Then decentralized production becomes highly interesting.

Gustaf Olsson

Lack of adequate financing is obviously a major barrier to Africa’s energy and economic development. Smart investors, in for the long term, will see the possibilities that Africa presents. If I were not in my winter years I would definitely be searching for attractive investments in what I see as one of the 21st century’s great investment opportunities.


You have given readers a sketch of the current scene that leaves two key items missing.

First, history. The scramble for Africa in the late 1800’s could be re-enacted unless there is some real change. I do not see real change coming, not even the Chinese railway finance project. Blood Diamonds, Greg Campbell’s revised book, doesn’t show real change of the sort needed. Nations extracting themselves from places they colonized have not done a good job of righting the wrongs committed. President Wilson wanted to see that get started in 1919. The World Bank financed hydro power project on the Zambezi is not something that can make anyone proud.

Second, the most important and, therefore, initial question on any energy policy or project is “Who Benefits?” It is one thing to document the various resources that might be available and organize capital, but who will benefit from the extracted resources and the renewable technologies? Until that question is ASKED and truly ANSWERED, what is the basis for policy and project development?

Your comments are appreciated and provide additional context for my brief overview of what may be possible with appropriate policies and adequate financing. I hope others will comment as well.