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As geopolitical conflicts, climate change and more recently the over arching pandemic necessitates a global consensus on the need to radically reform our economic models, food systems and health care practices, it also becomes equally important to address the question of energy security for the poor and the most vulnerable across the globe. More than ever, the current political and economic predicament that the developed and the developing world are faced with makes it an apropos time to confront the globally sanctioned energy status quo. Consequently, the global energy debates have to go beyond the generic questions on the pre-requisites for a much anticipated energy transition to low-carbon energy sources and also include questions of economic and political power for the deserted. Democratization of energy systems would then imply a scenario where those left at the mercy of colonialism and neo-colonialism accrue the wherewithal to fuel and sustain their own societies. Also, along with the economics of transitions, the political questions of class, race, gender, control and ownership must also take centre stage in the conversations on energy alternatives. In short, along with being financially viable, these energy transitions must also be emancipatory in character and intention.

Socially owned energy production that is both responsive and compatible with the socio-ecological demands can pave way towards a sustainable living model for the impoverished and Africa, with its abundance of natural resources, serves as the best platform for a just energy transition from below. The historical costs of the exploitation and displacement notwithstanding, it remains a fact that Africa presents myriad opportunities for communities and labour to converge so as to be able to take the cudgels of the transition towards renewable energy resources. An equitable social order with social ownership over energy resources goes beyond fulfilling the basic energy requirements and is in fact integrally linked to the principles of justice and equality in African countries, long plagued by racist and imperialist hegemony. Hence, it becomes important to look in to the trajectory and possibilities of a renewable energy revolution in the continent which would in turn not just be about redistribution of power to people but would also usher in redistribution of wealth, health, jobs and political power. However, while attempting such an enquiry one must also be mindful of the disparate vulnerabilities and widespread injustices prevalent in these communities which have both deflected and subverted the concretization of energy democracy programmes in many African countries. Thus, the vast potential for renewable energy investments in Africa cannot be delinked from the complexities of poor policy instruments and structural inequalities that define the continent in more ways than one. Nevertheless, an analysis of the renewable energy journey of Africa would help in understanding better the practical implications of community and democratic control of resources while also foregrounding the need for universal access to energy for a dignified living.  

1.1. THE POLITICS OF RENEWABLE ENERGY IN AFRICA

Energy transitions world-wide have always been debated, discussed and analysed for their economic, policy and technical aspects; the political/ justice parameters rarely captures the imagination of the larger narrative. It is in such a scenario that the concept of Energy Democracy, which strives for socialization and democratization of means of production to ensure equitable access to energy with minimal or no pollution, assumes significance. An overall overhaul of the energy consumption pattern that this concept expouses focuses  consequently on leaving the fossil fuels on ground so as to maintain a balance between the socio-political and economic justice movements and the demand for just transitions to low-carbon, affordable energy avenues. The dependability of renewable energy in facilitating reliable clean electricity, pollution controls and climate mitigation and its long-term potential to transform societies through a critical redistribution of wealth, health, power and job opportunities are all making the transition to renewables an indispensible, high-priority social movement globally (Stephens, 2019). Even with a record low share of access to power for its citizens, Africa too has been mapping out energy development policies, programmes and strategies for both regional and continental development. Since the institution of the African Energy Commission (AFREC) in 2006 through the Convention of African Energy Commission (CAEC), African countries have been actively tapping their potential to harness various renewable energy sources like hydropower, geo-thermal, wind, solar and bio-energy in order to decarbonize the energy systems, although many or all of these renewable projects are also not without their share of fragilities like displacement, land grab and associated demographic changes (Adams and of  Asante, 2020).  

While policy and financial solutions and strategies are crucial to confronting the continent’s energy challenges and to ensure access to affordable and non conventional energy sources, equally or more critical is the political stream too. The realization that African problems have to be managed and resolved by Africans themselves without the mediation of the neo-colonizers encouraged African countries to set out an Agenda 2063 during the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of Organization of African Unity (OAU). The First Continental Report on the Implementation of Agenda 2063 was presented on 10 February 2020 by President Alassane Outtara of Cote d’Ivoire. Along with the establishment of financial institutions like Africa Investment Bank, Pan-African Stock Exchange, Africa Central Bank and an African Monetary Fund, the agenda also emphasizes on “transforming the African economy from a raw material supplier to one that diligently and judiciously utilizes its own resources” (www.agenda2063.au.int). Thus, the intent and decisiveness to move towards a model of self-financing of African energy policies and programmes comes across as a significant shift in Africa’s energy governance. While one must not downsize the modest efforts made by African countries to facilitate clean energy transitions along with pushing for an increased share of renewables in the global energy mix, the fact remains that the different socio-political and economic realities of African countries does not make them a homogenous unit too. 

For instance, Ethiopia which is a leading producer of wind and hydropower along with vast production capacity of geothermal energy has a high rate of public investment. However, even when most of the companies are state-owned in the country the only functional privately owned companies belong to the political elites themselves. Kenya, on the other hand, known for being a leading producer of geothermal and hydropower energy has over the decades become a hub for private enterprises that seeks to update themselves with technological innovations time and again (Gordon, 2018). Hence such experiences reflect, in the words of Adams and Asante (2020), “different political, regulatory and security environment” which in turn poses “contextual challenges to push for a collective renewable agenda” without a thorough and comprehensive understanding of the particular realities of different African states.

Along with legislative and regulative constraints, the impracticality of depending on international financing which is both subjective to conditionalities and incommensurate with the socio-economic and political environment of most African countries makes it difficult to weave a one size fits all renewable energy strategy for Africa. Furthermore, instances like the Lake Turkana Wind Power Project in Kenya taking close to 9 years to reach financial closure or the Corbetti Geothermal Project in Ethiopia which is still underway bears testimony to the undue delays in contract bound performances all over Africa (Gordon, 2018). Hence, there is the need to focus on harnessing the dominant renewable energy resources like geothermal, wind, solar, hydropower and bio-energy along with rationally addressing the challenges around constraints like political insecurity, lacunae in regulatory and institutional frameworks and infrastructural inadequacies. However, while doing so one need to be mindful of the need to develop renewable projects on smaller local community scales so as to steer clear of the machinations of neo-colonial land grabs sponsored by European, American and Asian corporate who seek to invest in African renewable energy projects (Elliott, 2018).

Africa, in fact remains the best test ground for realizing the transformative social change potential of renewable energy through a process of reclaiming and restructuring of conventional energy systems. Public ownership of energy systems with emphasis on local priorities and social ownership of energy infrastructure would help underdeveloped regions like Africa alter their traditional societal structures marred by inequality, exploitation and economic backwardness.

1.2 INSTITUTIONALIZAION OF RENEWABLE ENERGY IN AFRICA: POLICIES, PROSPECTS AND BARRIERS

The institutionalization of renewable energy has always had to face barriers in the form of economic regulatory mechanisms or institutional disadvantage in comparison to other kinds of energy supply. As is the case in most other countries, the standardization of renewable energy technology in Africa too is not without constraints. While conventional fossil fuel technologies attract subsidies, renewable energy techniques have to bear the brunt of high initial capital costs and poor market acceptance. Coupled with this are issues like lack of skilled labour or information, high transaction costs, financing risks, uncertainties in capital markets and unstable fuel-price risk valuation (Beck and Martinot, 2004).  

Even with less than 4 percent aggregate contribution to carbon emissions,  it is the predominantly underdeveloped countries like those in Africa that most often bear the brunt of climate change and resultant energy crisis. Hence, it is paramount for African states to put in place state subsidized funding of renewable energy to bring about sustainability and energy sovereignty in the continent.  However it remains a fact that, despite the abundance in resources, African countries still present a picture of contradictions; the most infamous case being that of the Masakhane township in Mpumalanga where residents have no access to electricity despite the township being located close to 4 power stations that contribute to the national electricity grid: Duvha, Matla, Ga-Nala and Kendal. Just like several other millions of South Africans unconnected to the national grid, Masakhane also lives in darkness with the additional burden of the poisonous remnants generated by the coal deposits in the power stations. Hence, such testimonies forces one to ponder over the real benefits and beneficiaries of the electricity/ energy generated in the national power stations when ordinary households in the whole of South Africa contribute to a meagre 20% of the country’s total electricity consumption (Bhili and Rakei, 2019).

The unfolding energy crisis in South Africa, where the corporate giants like BHP Billiton benefit indiscriminately from state contracts and subsidies and the poor black population unjustly still tower above the statistics of lack of access to electricity, makes it important to further the enrichment of affordable and accessible renewable energy in the country tantamount to a people-friendly developmental trajectory. South Africa’s state owned company Eskom, for instance, is in talks to build 2 of the largest coal power stations in the country as it argues that the country’s abundant coal reserves can be put to use in fuelling these proposed stations. Yet, ironically the coal supplies to Eskom are not good enough despite South Africa being the 7th largest coal producer in the world. This is because of how the energy sector in most countries including South Africa is controlled by the historically privileged elites and not by the communities or workers. As a result, the coal suppliers at Eskom refuse to supply coal to the parastatal in lieu of more profitable sales to private parties. This makes the demand for socially owned renewable energy more relevant than ever so that the public funded enterprises along with the communities get to decide how a country’s energy resources are spent and requirements met (Bhili and Rakei, 2019).

The South African Department of Energy launched the Renewable energy Independent Power Producers Procurement Program (REIPPPP) in 2011 as a competitive tender procedure to secure investment into grid-connected renewable energy generation capacity for South Africa’s national electricity grid. The programme’s primary intent, as enumerated in the programme overview of the IPPPP published on 31st March 2017, states that the programme was conceived to reduce the country’s dependency on fossil fuels by vitalizing an indigenous renewable energy industry that would usher in both socio-economic growth and environmentally sustainable development (http:/www.ipp.projects.co.za/Publications). Hence, it is amply evident that even while grappling with an energy regime conditioned by the vestiges of colonialism, apartheid and market oriented liberalization, the state did promote a sub-national, regional and local understanding of energy governance within the country. It was also in principle committed to the precepts of decarbonisation by making efforts towards turning itself in to a prominent anchor for renewable energy investments. However, the capture of state enterprises like Eskom by a corrupt network of commercial enterprises close to the political elite limited the growth and proliferation of the renewable energy industry in the country. This is precisely the reason why countries like South Africa, along with their pledged allegiance to low-carbon economy transition, must also not loose sight of how to implement and monitor such commitments so as to build and bolster sustainable energy ecosystems (Davies, Swilling and Wlokas, 2017).  

It must be realized that renewable energy generation provides a country like South Africa an opportunity to restructure its economy by shifting the hold over capital away from concentrated elite holdings to collective and community ownership. Given that energy supplies forms the bulwark of the South African economy, it is for the state to decide whether state companies like Eskom should continue to pander to the threats of the private coal suppliers and carry on with disbursing electricity to industrial giants like BHP at half the market price or rise above the present crisis that presents an avenue for a just development of society, without pilfering off the sweat and labour of the black people. The National Union of Metalworkers in South Africa has already called for social ownership within the mineral and energy sector to bring about energy security in the country. The decentralized energy regime will also boost community controlled cooperatives that help generate employment by breaking away from the prevailing monopolies (Bhili and Rakei, 2019).

One look at East Africa also presents a very enriching possibility for an investment-friendly environment with specific opportunities for the installation of large on-grid projects in the wind and geothermal sectors along with commercially sustainable and diversified solar installations. However, as is customary with other regions within the continent, here too the investors mostly pull the plug on projects or shut down ongoing ventures both because of regulatory and political ambiguities as well as due to the physical security risks to their assets. For instance, Ethiopia in the Eastern end poses less physical asset risks and more regulatory and political constraints in comparison to, say, Kenya that has fewer regulatory and legislative gaps but nevertheless has the disadvantage of asset risks. Despite such uncertainties, however, an increasing number of private power producers are striving their best to attain financial closure on both on-grid and off-grid ventures in the region. Consequently, East Africa is home to some of the largest renewable energy projects in the world like the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam project in Ethiopia, the mega on-shore wind development projects in Lake Turkana in Kenya, Corbetti geo-thermal project in Ethiopia and the 2 massive off-grid projects in Kenya and Tanzania namely, the M-kopa solar project and the off-grid electric venture respectively (Gordon, 2018).

1.3 ENERGY DEMOCRACY AND THE TRANSITION TO A JUST ENERGY FUTURE IN AFRICA

The fossil fuelled economies have always been fundamentally antithetical to the idea of a survivable and just energy future. Unless and until the consolidation of political and economic elites around energy systems world over is broken, there will never be the emergence of diverse power structures equipped to give life to autonomous energy networks that could hold one another accountable for pooling and redistributing energy resources. Africa, hence, must take the leap in rooting its resilient energy economy on decentralized, community-controlled renewable energy projects with a programmatic approach to address and resolve its skewed consumption patterns. In the wake of the biggest tragedy of modern times, the corona pandemic, when the neo-liberal assumptions are crumbling under the weight of its biological impracticality and non-sustainability, countries in Africa have the opportunity to gravitate towards a new paradigm of energy sovereignty by refusing the big corporate and neo-colonizers the possibilities for greater accumulation. The time is in fact ripe to evolve newer energy alternatives that are not structured by extractivist motives or exclusionary methodologies.

Africa has to break itself away from the carbon web of legal, cultural, financial and institutional structures that have been put in place by the big fossil fuel corporations to prevent a democratic control over energy resources. It is exactly this complex web of institutional frameworks that dominate fuel flows in underdeveloped worlds through forceful accumulation, resulting in indefensible looting of non-renewable resources and dispossession and expulsion of people from their lands. Hence, it is important for the exploited and the oppressed to forge solidarities in order to thwart the whims of private capital and decide for themselves as to how, where and for whom are the energy resources being spent. As Africa is riddled with pre-existing inequalities of wealth and social capital, it becomes all the more critical for the region to look for emancipatory energy alternatives like renewable energy while also foregrounding the principles of universal access and socialized control of resources in opposition to market calculations.

Further, the advocates of energy democracy also root for a re-imagined energy politics that seeks to reverse the long histories of marginalization, social injustices and dispossession in developing and underdeveloped countries through a democratic reorientation of the energy and electricity sectors. Undercutting the existing power relations in these sectors forms the key to replacing the fossil fuel monopoly with renewable, democratic structures. Apart from this, in politically unstable countries like those in Africa, the energy democracy project that involves a decentralized community-level production and promotion of renewable energy presents a broader possibility for augmenting the political democracy praxis in the regions too. Social justice and economic equity promotes politically committed citizenry that would in turn operate as citizens before consumers when given a far greater autonomy and command in arriving at energy decisions. Thus, the inclusion of the historically marginalized communities within the praxis of energy politics not just attaches fresh priorities to the future energy debates but also accords a democratic legitimacy to the political and economic systems within a country (Burke and Stephens, 2017).

Social or public production and consumption of renewable energy thus both destabilizes the dominant energy regimes through open energy access and community-wealth creation as well as brings forth the opportunity for a re-invigoration of the need to preserve the energy commons. In the trying times of a pandemic, countries in Africa must forge a more inclusive and strategic collusion of alliances that would then focus on deeper transformations of their economic and socio-political models through just energy transitions. These transitions, consolidating both long-term and short-term goals and strategies, can only be steered though strengthening local institutions like labour unions, low-income communities, communities of colour, small businesses and ecological and social movements. However, as the nature and form of politics employed to steer transitions greatly influence the prospects for more democratic futures, one has to be wary of how, by whom and for whom are the renewable energy transitions advancing.

At a time when the International Energy Agency has predicted a surge in Sub-Saharan Africa’s renewable energy power generation by 2040, with solar energy leading the renewable growth in the region followed by geo-thermal, hydropower and wind, there is the need for larger diverse inter-regional cooperation and investments in energy projects within the continent. This however can only be a reality if energy efficiency and storage measures are coupled with awareness and skill-building for locally harnessing the resources. It is also equally important for the region to stimulate and promote locally financed community- centred energy endeavours that would then minimize the financial consternations of reluctant governments and inspire them to boost policy incentives for renewable energy mechanisms. The modular nature and low investment commitments of renewable energy technology makes it the best suitable energy technology for capital-constrained African countries and hence, now is the time to focus more on accelerating the coal phase out in Africa by reinvesting in clean energy. Replacing coal with lower-cost and more efficient alternatives not just rescues the money and salvages the health of the consumers but could also play a decisive role in the impending inevitable economic recovery in Africa and elsewhere.

REFERENCES

  • Adams Samuel and Assante William (2020), “Politics of Renewable Energy in Africa: Nature, Prospects and Challenges”, Innovation in Global Green Technologies: http://dx.doi.org/10.5772/intechopen.89019.
  • Beck Fredric and Martinot Eric (2004), “Renewable Energy Policy and Barriers”, Encyclopaedia of Energy, Vol.5, pp: 365-383.
  • Bhili Thabang and Rakei Simon (2019), Eskom and the Crisis of Energy Democracy: A Case for Safe, Socially Owned Renewable Energy, The Alternative Energy Popular Education Programme: http://www.altepep.com.
  • Burke. J.Mathew and Stephens.C. Jennie (2017), “Energy Democracy: Goals and Policy Instruments for Sociotechnical Transitions”, Energy Research & Social Science, Vol.33, pp: 35-48.
  • Davies Megan, Swilling Mark and Wlokas Linnea Holle (Nov, 2017), “Towards New Configurations of Urban Energy Governance in South Africa’s Renewable Energy Procurement Programme”, Energy Research & Social Science.
  • Elliott Dave (2018), “Africa- Europe Concentrating Solar Power Link: A Solar Land Grab”, Physicsworld, 13 June 2018.
  • Gordon Emma (2018), The Politics of Renewable Energy in East Africa, Oxford Institute for Energy Studies, University of Oxford, United Kingdom.
  • Stephens. C. Jennie (2019), “Energy Democracy: Redistributing Power to the People through Renewable Transformation”, Environment: Science and Policy for Sustainable Development, Vol.61, No.2, pp: 4-13.  
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