Africa, the energy of the future

Published on Thursday, 28 June 2018

“Africa presents a great opportunity and we have to take a fresh look at the situation. This is because technology has provided us with solutions that simply didn't exist 10 years ago”

– Francesco Starace, CEO and General Manager, Enel

Opening the conference, Antonio Cammisecra, Chairman of RES4MED&Africa and CEO of Enel Green Power, recalled the problem presented by the huge infrastructure gap. The most difficult question is still that of distribution networks, especially in rural areas. Should we focus on traditional networks, local micro-grids or individual installations that are not hooked into a network (off-grid)?  

“In Africa there is a very close relationship between food, water and energy. That’s why sustainability should be an integral part of entrepreneurial activity, and play a central role in the relationship between national and international stakeholders”

– Antonio Cammisecra, Chairman of RES4MED&Africa and CEO of Enel Green Power

EGP is now the main private operator in the renewables sector in Africa, with a stable presence in South Africa, Zambia, Ethiopia and Morocco. The European renewables industry is dominant on the African continent – over the last 10 years, 40% of total investment in the sector has been European. As a result, the afternoon’s discussion turned around a question posed by Mr Cammisecra himself – do we need a new European programme to invest in renewables in Africa?

Renewable energy from Morocco to South Africa

“Africa is often regarded in a negative light, with talk of problems and disasters, but these days it is home to one of the world’s fastest-growing economies, and this has encouraged the growth of a middle class and a young population that finally has access to education,” says Adnan Z. Amin, Director General of IRENA (the International Renewable Energy Agency). He pointed out many success stories in the field of renewables, like investment in solar energy in Morocco, in geothermal and wind power in Kenya and the Renewable Energy Independent Power Producers Procurement Programme (REIPPPP) in South Africa, a model for public-private collaboration. Nigeria has also seen the launch of the first Sub-Saharan Africa green bond, and clean cooking is now a national priority in Rwanda. The Ethiopian energy Minister, Frehiwot Woldehanna, described the launch of the National Electrification Program to bring electrical energy to all by changing the energy mix, emphasising geothermal and wind power and encouraging the private sector to invest in distribution.   

According to Vijay Modi, a lecturer at New York’s Columbia University, the debate about choosing between traditional infrastructure and mini- or off-grids is a “false problem” and depends on the regions and the situation on the ground. Of course, the state or local government has to intervene to ensure access to energy for all where there is no return on investment. Paolo Frankl, Head of the Renewable Energy Division for the IEA, is optimistic about the potential of technology to cut costs and enable a “leapfrog strategy,” which allows those starting second to avoid the errors made by those preceding them, in this case building infrastructure based on fossil fuel energy. Instead they can jump directly to renewables.  

Matteo Codazzi, CEO of Cesi, pointed out the huge potential offered to rural areas by micro- and off-grids, as they involve smaller financial risks, rapid installation and scalable solutions. “In 2030, 52% of the population could be served by micro-grids, and this interconnectedness can solve the problem of intermittent supply. We’ve seen the results in Kenya, where in the past five years energy has been brought to five million people.”

The important thing, many speakers insisted, is to share every investment project with the local community, with a view to promoting the growth of a national managerial class. “In Denmark, for example”, said Hans Jørgen Koch, CEO of Nordic Energy Research, “initial hostility to wind turbines was very strong, but the key was to ensure the local population was financially involved, too.” “Make use of local know-how,” was the advice given by Susann Strizke, a lecturer at Oxford University, while for Ignacio Pérez-Arriaga from MIT in Boston the problem is the viability gap in the poorest rural areas, which acts as a brake on investment.

“It always seems impossible until it’s done,” concluded the representative from the South African embassy in Rome, Sheldon Moulton, echoing one of the fathers of his nation, Nelson Mandela.

Open Africa Power: building a managerial class

The first edition of the RES4MED&Africa’s flagship publication was also presented, with the title “Unlocking value from Sustainable Renewable Energy.” It was developed in collaboration with the Enel Foundation and is the first in a series of annual publications. A dozen students from seven African countries (Ethiopia, Kenya, Cameroon, Ivory Coast, South Africa, Uganda and Zimbabwe) from another crucial project to train Africa’s future managerial class were invited to RES4MED&Africa. Open Africa Power is an innovative training and capacity building programme created by the Enel Foundation in collaboration with several Italian universities, including the Milan Polytechnic, the Turin Polytechnic and Milan’s Bocconi University, and in partnership with a number of African universities, including the Strathmore University of Nairobi and the University of Addis Ababa, which hosted the programme’s initial module in early April.

In the first week in Italy the students, who are all engineering, IT, economics or law graduates with a masters or PhD in the energy sector, attended classes at the universities. In the second week, however, they visited the Enel power stations at Torrevaldaliga, Larderello and Nazzano, the Collarmele wind farm, the E-distribuzione operations centre in L’Aquila and the Smart Grid Lab in Milan, for a full immersion in Enel’s energy management system.

This capacity building programme was complemented by a series of initiatives promoted by the Foundation on the African continent, including the publication of “Open Africa,” a photography book and web documentary produced in collaboration with RES4MED&Africa which was presented on 20 June.

Education is one of the most powerful instruments for promoting sustainable development. Sharing knowledge on all aspects of production and distribution of sustainable electricity, from technology to regulation, will enable us to meet the challenge of a clean energy future for Africa,” said the Director of the Enel Foundation Carlo Papa, adding, “soon we’ll be launching the second edition of the programme.”