Creating sustainable pathways towards universal renewable electricity access in Africa by simultaneously addressing energy demand, climate change, and ecosystem functioning

Mitigating climate change, while human population and economy are growing globally, requieres a bold shift to renewable resources. In Africa, the need for this transition is accompinied by the urgency to "ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable, and modern energy for all" (Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 7) for almost half of the African human population that currently lacks access. Within this project we investigate how African countries could perform a transition towards entirly renewable based electricity systems. This project provides quantitative, data-based, and spatially explicit analyses and insights on a renewable electricity mix in Africa that could relieve the dam building pressure on African rivers.


Electricity mix from renewable energies can avoid further fragmentation of African rivers

Access to publication: Peters, R., Berlekamp, J., Tockner, K., & Zarfl, C. (2024). Electricity mix from renewable energies can avoid further fragmentation of African rivers. Sustainable Energy Research, 11(1), 1-16. Read

Abstract: In Africa, mitigating climate change in a context of a growing human population and developing economies requires a bold transition to renewable energy (RE) resources. Declining costs for solar photovoltaics (by 90% between 2009 and 2023) and wind turbines (by 57% between 2010 and 2023) fuelled their construction, and hybrid forms such as floating photovoltaics (FPV) on existing hydropower reservoirs are increasingly being explored. Nevertheless, 65% of the proposed RE capacity in Africa remains hydropower, despite confirmed ecological, socioeconomic, and political ramifications on different spatiotemporal scales. The 673 proposed hydropower plants (HPPs) would increasingly affect river systems and threaten their biodiversity. While there is clear evidence that a transition to RE in Africa is technically feasible, there is a lack of spatially explicit studies on how this transition could be implemented. Hence, the aim of the present study is to explore options for an RE mix that avoids additional hydropower construction and, therefore, further river fragmentation. Attribute data of the open-accessible Renewable Power Plant Database (RePP Africa) were analysed to assess the amount of lost capacity due to operation stops. Geospatial analyses of solar irradiation and existing reservoir data were used to derive the potential for FPV. The degree of possible replacement of future hydropower was assessed under consideration of economically feasible wind and solar photovoltaic (PV) potential. To enhance electricity generation from existing HPPs, efficient and sustainable renewable power plant planning must integrate the risk of failure, as it has diminished the available capacity in the past up to 24%. Our findings further reveal that 25 African countries could replace the proposed hydropower development by FPV covering less than 25% of the surface area of their existing hydropower reservoirs. All 36 African countries could replace proposed hydroelectricity generation by fully exploiting feasible onshore wind and solar PV potential with a mean surplus of 371 TWh per year. In summary, our findings provide scientific evidence to support policy discussions on the potential electricity gains from (1) minimizing plant failure, (2) installing FPV as a co-use option, and (3) exploiting wind and solar resources. This study provides quantitative, data-based, and spatially explicit scenarios on the implementation of an RE mix that could relieve the dam building pressure on African rivers.


Sustainable pathways towards universal renewable electricity access in Africa

Published in Nature Reviews Earth & Environment (Jan 2024)

Access to publication: Rebecca Peters, Jürgen Berlekamp, Charles Kabiri, Beth A. Kaplin, Klement Tockner, Christiane Zarfl: Sustainable pathways towards universal renewable electricity access in Africa, Nature Reviews Earth & Environment; 

Press release

Abstract: Half of the African population currently lacks the minimum levels of electricity access defined by the International Energy Agency. However, given the limited fossil fuel dependency and need for energy infrastructure expansion, there are expectations that at least some African countries could avoid fossil fuel dependency altogether and move directly to renewable energy (RE)-based electricity systems. In this Perspective, we present trends in Africa’s RE development and access on a national level and discuss the respective country-specific capacities to lead the transition to sustainable RE for all. If all existing wind, solar and hydropower plants operate on full capacity and all proposed plants are implemented, 76% (1,225 TWh) of electricity needs projected for 2040 (a total of 1,614 TWh) could be met by RE (82% hydropower, 11% solar power and 7% wind power). Hydropower has been the main RE resource to date, but declining costs for solar photovoltaics (90% decline since 2009) and wind turbines (55–60% decline since 2010) mean solar and wind have potential to lead sustainable RE pathways going forward, while also protecting freshwater ecosystems. Efficiently combining the advantages of hydropower with wind and solar will be a more sustainable alternative to hydropower alone. As resource potential differs among countries, transnational electricity sharing is recommended to distribute resources and share nationally produced peak capacity. Comprehensive investigations should further assess and monitor socioeconomic, political and ecological impacts of RE development.

RePP Africa – a georeferenced and curated database on existing and proposed wind, solar, and hydropower plants

Published in Scientific Data (Jan 2023)


Data descriptor

Abstract: Promoting a transition to low-carbon energy systems to mitigate climate change requires an optimization of renewable energy (RE) planning. However, curated data for the most promising RE technologies, hydro-, wind and solar power, are missing, which limits data-based decision-making support. Here, a spatially explicit database for existing and proposed renewable power plants is provided: The Renewable Power Plant database for Africa (RePP Africa) encompasses 1074 hydro-, 1128 solar, and 276 wind power plant records. For each power plant, geographic coordinates, country, construction status, and capacity (in megawatt) are reported. The number of RePP Africa records exceeds the respective values in other existing open-access databases and matches available cumulative capacity data reported by international energy organizations best with deviations <13% for hydro-, <23% for wind, and <32% for solar power plants. This contemporary database is the most harmonized open-accessible reference source on RE power plants across Africa for stakeholders from science, (non-)governmental organizations, consulting, and industry; providing a fundamental data basis for the development of an integrated sustainable RE mix.

If you wish to provide database updates, please contact Rebecca Peters.