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The Potential of Renewable Energy Technologies in Africa

By

Stephen Karekezi


BACKGROUND

Recent interest in renewable energy in Africa is driven by, among others, the following important developments. The first is the recent increase in oil prices which, recently, peaked to US$ 33.16 per barrel (Economist: Jan, 98 - Dec, 2000) at a time when Africa’s convertible currency earnings are very low due to poor world market prices and decreased volumes of its commodity exports. Consequently, it is estimated that in the year 2000, petroleum imports as percentage of export earnings has doubled from about 15-20% to 30-40% for a number of African countries.

The second important development that has increased interest in renewables in the region is the recurrent crises faced by most power utilities in the region. For example, in year 2000 alone, Ethiopia Kenya, Malawi, Nigeria and Tanzania have faced unprecedented power rationing which have adversely affected their economies. The rapid development of renewables is often mentioned as an important response option for addressing the power problems faced by the region.

Two important global environment initiatives have also stimulated greater interest in renewables in Africa. The first was the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in 1992. At this Conference, an ambitious environment and development document entitled "Agenda 21" was reviewed by one of the largest gathering of Government Heads of States and, perhaps more importantly, was endorsed by a large number of multi-nationals companies. Agenda 21 sought to operationalize the concept of sustainable development. In addition, the Rio Conference provided the venue for the second important event, the signing of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) by 155 Governments (United Nations, 1992). The Convention came into force in early 1994 after ratification by 50 States.

Renewables featured in both Agenda 21 and the Climate Change Convention (United Nations, 1992). Because of the important role of fossil fuels in the build-up of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere (it is estimated that the energy sector accounts for about half the global emissions of green-house gases) and concomitant climate change concerns, renewables are perceived to constitute an important option for mitigating and abating the emissions of greenhouse gases (Socolow, 1992).


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