Why Africa’s energy transition is only happening in South Africa

In more ways than one, the concept of energy transition makes no sense for African countries. The energy transition model by which fossil fuels were going to be replaced with renewable energy emerged out of developed countries, where low population growth and few incremental energy needs have paved the way for new planning strategies to reorganise the energy mix towards cleaner sources of electricity generation. For the same reason, the energy transition is mostly happening in countries where total energy supply and energy consumption has stabilised for over a decade.

However, African countries are still under development and the continent counts over 600m people without access to electricity. Because of Africa’s continued demographic growth, the number of people without access to power is likely to rise. Lack of industrialisation along with uneven economic development means that Africa is also one of the world’s smallest carbon emitter.

From a policy and development perspective, the priority will very much remain on adding as much power generation capacity as possible along with expanding electricity transmission and distribution infrastructure to lift people out of poverty. Before Africa can transition its energy mix, it needs to significantly expand and transform it. In doing so, renewable energy capacity will be growing, but not to the extent where it can replace existing electricity generation facilities.

South Africa is the exception to the story. First, because its energy supply has remained more or less the same for a decade; its electricity consumption, for instance, has averaged 230 TWh a year for about ten years now, according to IEA data. South Africa is part of the G20, has started its demographic transition and has a relatively easy access to finance. Second, because well over 80% of the country’s electricity still comes from coal facilities, many of which are aging. A relatively stable electricity supply along with a heavy carbon-emitting electricity mix naturally paved the way for South Africa to transition its energy mix.

South Africa’s energy transition strategy

The country’s strategy is very much targeted at relying less on coal and more on solar, wind and gas. In fact, its 2019 Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) provides for the decommissioning of over 24 GW of coal power sources within the next 10-30 years. Natural gas will become an energy fuel for the country, especially when it comes to converting some of its diesel and coal facilities. The country notably commissioned several power plants expected to run on gas but currently running on diesel: Ankerling (1,327 MW), Gourikwa (740 MW), Avon (670 MW), and Dedisa (335 MW).

In the IRP of 2019, South Africa reiterated a long-standing commitment to natural gas, by reaffirming its ambition to convert the four stations to LNG or natural gas, and commission an additional 3,000 MW of greenfield gas-to-power capacity by 2030. Several such projects are already well advanced, including the conversion of the Ankerling and Gourikwa stations.

But the real story of the past few years has been that of wind and solar. South Africa has become an undisputed renewable energy leader on the continent, attracting local and global investors from Europe, China, the Middle East and the Americas into its now famous Renewable Energy Independent Power Producer Procurement Programme (REIPPPP).

From 2012 to 2015, South Africa awarded 6.3 GW of renewable energy capacity via windows 1, 2, 3, 3.5 and 4. Thousands of jobs were created, while attracting billions on foreign direct investment. While the projects from Window 4 are just reaching commissioning stage, South Africa just closed its Risk Mitigation IPP Procurement Programme (RMIPPPP), awarding another 2 GW of projects in March 2021.

And this is only the beginning for the country’s clean energy sector. The need to ensure reliable and affordable energy supply post Covid-19 has accelerated the timeline of the future REIPPPP windows. Window 5 is currently underway with winners expected to be announced by the end of the year. Meanwhile, Window 6 is expected to be launched this year to announce the winners in May 2022, while Window 7 would be launched in 2022 to that winners are awarded in Q3 of the same year.

Finally, South Africa is also planning a storage and gas-specific windows, with the former launched in November this year while the latter would see its request for proposal issued in Q1 2022.

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