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Tina Casey headshot

African Renewable Energy Offers Alternative To ExxonMobil


According to ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson, fossil fuels are the only affordable fuel that can challenge "energy poverty" in emerging economies with fast-growing populations. Africa is one such case, and it presents a tantalizing market for ExxonMobil's wares. However, according to a new international report, African renewable energy resources can be tapped economically at a rapid clip, fulfilling 22 percent of the continent's overall needs by 2030 -- more than four times the 2013 mark of just 5 percent.

If that goal seems overly ambitious, guess again. According to the agency behind the report, IRENA (the International Renewable Energy Agency), affordable new technological advances could enable African renewable energy to beat fossil fuels to the punch.

The IRENA report on African renewable energy

The new African renewable energy report, titled Africa 2030, provides a roadmap for transitioning an entire continent into modern renewable energy technology.

In contrast to Tillerson's view, IRENA Director-General Adnan Z. Amin maintains that Africa's abundant renewable resources are the key to ensuring energy access:

"Tapping into renewable energy resources is the only way African nations can fuel economic growth, maximize socio-economic development and enhance energy security with limited environmental impact. The technologies are available, reliable and increasingly cost-competitive."

Here's a rundown from IRENA on the daunting task ahead, given the rapid pace of growth that is already transforming many African nations:
"The continent’s total electricity consumption increased 650 percent between 1971 and 2013, from 80 terawatt-hours to 600 TWh, and this growth is expected to continue. Over the next 25 years, electricity demand will triple in Southern Africa and quadruple in Eastern Africa ... Less than 25 percent of households in sub-Saharan Africa have electricity access, a percentage which drops as low as 10 percent in rural areas."

In particular, Africa 2030 describes how the continent can replace the equivalent of more than 341 megatons of coal with renewable energy in the power sector. In other words, that would mean a 50 percent share of power generation for renewables, including solar, wind, biomass, hydropower and geothermal.

The unsustainable use of biomass of for cooking is another key area of focus, with public health concerns running apace with environmental sustainability. IRENA foresees a solution in new technology:

"The report estimates that a shift to modern renewable energy cooking solutions would reduce the use of traditional cook stoves by more than 60 per cent, saving US$20 billion to $30 billion annually by 2030 through the reduction of health complications from poor indoor air quality."

African renewable energy: ExxonMobil vs. U.S.

As Amin notes, following through on the recommendations of Africa 2030 is a matter of government policymaking. That's a pretty tall order considering that ExxonMobil is one of the top oil producers in Africa, where it pitches itself as the "Energy for Growth" company.

However, recent improvements in renewable energy technology are driving down prices, which could help to damper the persuasiveness of ExxonMobil's "foreign policy" efforts.

Helping things along are international initiatives such as U.S. President Barack Obama's Power Africa renewable energy initiative, which counts another global behemoth -- General Electric -- among its supporters.

When Power Africa launched in 2013, GE Chairman and CEO Jeff Immelt had this to say:

"With 7 in 10 people in Africa still lacking access to modern electricity, reliable power is critical to unlocking the region’s economic and human potential. GE supports the Power Africa Initiative which provides leadership in addressing this vital need — a win for economic development in both Africa and the U.S."

Power Africa has been fulfilling its mandate. In a July 2015 Power Africa update, the Obama administration noted progress in several key areas.

Among the highlights, Benin is signing a compact with MCC, the U.S. Millennium Challenge Corp., for a $375 million initiative involving 78 megawatts of generating capacity, or about a third of the country's overall demand. That includes 45 MW of utility-scale solar as well as infrastructure investments and policy commitments.

The update notes progress on four "priority projects" undertaken by OPIC (the Overseas Private Investment Corp.), another U.S. government financing agency. These include commitments for two wind energy projects in Kenya and two thermal energy projects in Senegal and Ghana, all four totaling more than 700 MW of renewable energy generation in sub-Saharan Africa.

A third highlight mentioned in the update consists of new USTDA (U.S. Trade and Development Agency) early-stage funding for a 50 MW solar plant in Nigeria and a 2 MW microgrid in Tanzania. USTDA is also providing funding for an energy storage market assessment aimed at propelling renewable energy adoption continent-wide.

Your move, Rex.

Image (screenshot): via Africa 2030.

Tina Casey headshotTina Casey

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.

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