Africa has significant renewable energy options. Being mainly in the tropics, solar energy is quite pervasive. In addition, agricultural production can lead to large quantities of biomass, as in Mauritius where these practices already contribute significantly to their electricity. Wind is available in selected areas, such as Egypt, Mauritania and Mozambique, but the most available resource in nearly all countries is hydropower. However, the technologies for renewable energy are not ideal.
Solar energy devices are generally yet to be cost effective while wind - where the resource is available - compares well with more conventional systems. Solar water heaters can prove useful in certain niches such as rural areas that are far from the national grid. The use of modern biomass in the industrial, power production and transport industries is supported, as waste products from agricultural processing are good feedstock for such systems.
But it is worth noting that fossil fuels have dominated the global energy scene for more than a century and will continue doing so for at least another generation. Any new energy system will require substantial changes to the entire energy infrastructure and huge capital requirements, as will the costs involved in overcoming the obstacles posed by vested interests.
Financing energy investments is particularly challenging because of limited domestic capacity, which has led to the dominance of foreign financing and continued influence by donors and multilateral institutions. In recent years, the most notable prescription from these institutions has been for Africa to liberalise and privatise the energy sector, as in the cases of Senegal, Côte d'Ivoire and Uganda. While there are advantages in reforming the sector's management, increasing access to affordable, modern energy for poorer communities has been ignored; so has maximising indigenous energy resources. As a result, higher energy prices and energy scarcity have characterised such reforms. A departure from this vicious cycle is advisable.
Effective transfer of technologies will require partnerships among major stakeholders. African governments will have to formulate and implement measures that will improve the capacities of these countries to better receive technologies, while governments of technology suppliers will need to formulate policies that provide incentives for technology suppliers to find such transfers attractive.
Energy technology "leapfrogging" can have a positive impact on African countries as they move towards a more sustainable development. Leapfrogging involves moving from one technology to another without going through the certain intermediate stages, such as moving from a traditional firewood stove to one using liquefied petroleum gas, while ignoring improved charcoal and kerosene stoves.
But past experience has shown that African governments need to act collectively in approaching critical energy issues and must introduce institutional reforms to facilitate regional joint ventures. Africa's fossil fuels and renewable energy alternatives are abundant but most of these reserves are yet to be exploited due to the lack of capital resources, infrastructure and institutions.
African countries can contribute their abundant energy resources, provided the technological and financial support systems are available, which will require significant external assistance.
Ogunlade R. Davidson was Director of the Energy and Development Research Centre, University of Cape Town, South Africa. He is now a Professor at the University of Sierra Leone in Freetown. His essay is adapted from an article first published by Science in Africa, Africa's first On-Line Science Magazine, accessible on the Internet at www.scienceinafrica.co.za. E-mail: email@example.com