By NJ Ayuk, Executive Chairman, African Energy Chamber
As the hottest year ever recorded draws to a close, climate change is passing from theory to reality and gaining ever-increasing urgency in statehouses around the world. The goal of achieving net zero CO2 emissions worldwide by 2050 is widely agreed upon by climate experts as necessary to avoid irreversible changes in Earth’s weather patterns that could cause centuries of harm for everyone. The big question, of course, is how do we get there? Who bears what burdens, and how?
For the developed world, the answer is strikingly simple: cut, cut, and cut some more. The countries that generate and consume the most energy have brought us to this point, and it’s their responsibility to become more efficient and find new and cleaner ways to maintain their current, comfortable lifestyle. While the cutting part has left much to be desired so far, the new and cleaner part looks promising. The cost of renewable energy (RE) sources such as wind and solar have been drastically reduced over the last decade to become some of the cheapest options available.
This is where the question gets thorny: What about the developing world, which has barely even begun to emit carbon, yet desperately wants (and deserves) to catch up to the developed world’s standard of living? How do places like Africa get what they want without erasing progress toward net zero? For many, the answer is leapfrogging.
What is Leapfrogging?
In short, leapfrogging is the idea that developing nations can bypass the last century and a half of carbon-heavy energy technology and jump straight to 100% renewable energy with no middle stage. It’s easy to see why this idea is tempting, and why so much talk of it is focused on Africa. Cheap technology is appealing to poor countries, and our equatorial continent between two oceans has some of the greatest potential for solar and wind power to be found anywhere on the planet. Currently, more than 600 million people in sub-Saharan Africa have no access to electricity, and the total population is expected to double in the next three decades, so the demand is already enormous and accelerating by the day. By 2050, one in four people on Earth will be African.
Western attendees at climate conferences such as the 2021 and 2022 United Nations Conference of Parties (COP26 and COP27) have opined that the world “cannot afford” for developing countries to follow the same trajectory as Europe, the U.S., and China to reach abundant, reliable energy supply. Mohamed Adow, director of the energy and climate think-tank Power Shift Africa, states that “Africa stands on the cusp of sweeping economic development. Whether this development is powered by clean renewables, or dirty fossil fuels, will go a long way to determining if the world meets the Paris Agreement goal…” Greenpeace urges African leaders “to avoid falling into the fossil fuel trap and lead the continent towards a clean, renewable, affordable and sustainable energy future.”
Boiled down, the implication is that Africa should avoid ANY investment in fossil fuels —complete prohibition. Suggesting otherwise in some circles verges on taboo. But is it realistic to expect Africa to go all-in on the latest technology and forego other resources it has in great abundance, like natural gas? Do the numbers back up their assertions? And is it even fair to ask so much from people with so far to go?
Not as Cheap as It Sounds
Even as solar panels and windmills drop in price, obtaining them is only one part of a much larger equation. Solar arrays, for instance, can be installed on a single home or in a microgrid connected to a small group of residences to power them directly. Multiply this by hundreds or thousands and the arrangement is known as distributed solar energy.
Leapfrogging using distributed solar has been described as similar to how the developing world leapt right past landlines and straight to cell phones with seeming ease just in the last couple of decades. If we can do it with communications, then why not energy?
Cost, for starters. A basic 8W solar array can cost 10 times more than a cell phone in a single year in Kenya. An 8W system is just enough to power a couple of LED lights and a cell phone charger. If you want to power a TV, a refrigerator, a washing machine, or other energy-intensive appliances, you’ll need a bigger and more costly array. If your village’s microgrid is small, what happens when too many people get refrigerators and air conditioning? Time to increase the size of the grid. And then inevitably, what happens when the sun doesn’t shine? Add storage batteries, or a local power storage facility. Expand from powering homes to industrial and agricultural use? Now your costs are growing exponentially. Realistically, who would stay satisfied for long with just two lights and a phone charger?
The difference between distributed cellular and distributed solar is networks. Distributed cellular works because everyone’s cell phone connects to a huge, centralized network of cell towers that are connected to reliable power and do all the work of connecting calls on the back end. Imagine if every home had to have its own cell tower and all the necessary hardware and software to connect to all the other phones in the world, and you can see how quickly that would get very expensive. That is distributed solar’s disadvantage — every separate grid has to do it all, and if one fails, the others can’t pick up the slack. The end result is a patchy, uneven, and unreliable supply of energy that is easily sabotaged by spikes in demand or ebbs in supply.
Like cellular, energy works best with economies of scale. Large central networks allow energy demand to be distributed based on supply and demand, with one region’s excess balancing out another’s shortage such that only the largest events can impact the entire grid at once. Can solar and wind grids be built this way? Yes, but to support industrial and agricultural use, it requires a huge investment in land as well as money for a payoff that is currently underwhelming at best. The Benban Solar Farm in Egypt covers more than 37 square kilometers (14.3 square miles) — large enough to be visible from space — but can still only power 420,000 Egyptian homes; a small fraction of the country’s 102 million people. Expanding further might be fine in a country that’s mostly empty desert, but how much land can be set aside in more humid, arable climates where every scrap of farmland is needed to survive?
Mixed Energy Won’t Be the End of the World
While renewable energy does look like a great way to get people up and running who are starting with nothing, it clearly isn’t ready to solve all the problems of nations seeking higher levels of prosperity without all the guilt. African countries need to tap the power of the grid and every resource available to them in order to achieve what the West takes for granted every day. That includes fossil fuels, which Africa possesses in abundance, like it or not. But wouldn’t industrializing Africa with fossil fuels lead to climate catastrophe?
The answer to that question is often greatly exaggerated. Adding 250 million homes to the grid with 35 kWh/month usage (enough for a TV, refrigerator, and fan), even entirely from coal, would only increase current global greenhouse gas emissions by 0.25%. Of course, no one is suggesting firing up hundreds of coal plants across the continent, but natural gas is widely acknowledged as the cleanest form of fossil fuel, its use for generating electricity is well established, and Africa already has massive amounts of it. Instead of starting at the bottom of the carbon ladder, burning the dirtiest stuff first in its own industrial revolution, Africa is poised to start at the top. The no-carbon approach may not be fully feasible, but a low-carbon approach most certainly is.
A Question of Fairness
According to a special report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), staying within a 1.5°C maximum average global temperature rise will require a 45% decline in global CO2 emissions from 2010 levels by 2030. In reality, it needs to decline more than twice that fast since global emissions actually grew 10% between 2010 and 2019.
In 2021, Africa accounted for just 3.9% of all CO2 emissions worldwide. All of sub-Saharan Africa could triple its electricity use overnight using only natural gas and still account for only a 1% increase in global emissions, so low is its starting point. By combining natural gas with renewable energy to make the best use of both, the increase would certainly be less than that. It is hardly fair for the rest of the world to tell Africa to hold itself back for the “common good” while they continue to belch out 96% of the problem.
The solution to climate change is not for the developing world to risk “leapfrogging” over vital steps to industrialization, but for the developed world to do far more to reduce its own output that created the mess in the first place. Africa deserves the chance to improve the quality of life for its people, and it has the resources to solve its own problems if given the chance.