It is estimated that sub-Saharan Africa has an installed capacity of 80GWp with more than half in South Africa alone. Additionally, studies show that approximately 620 million people do not have access to electricity in Africa with close to 70% of the population being rural. This has a far-reaching impact on socio-economic development and delivery of important services. There is a migration wave into the urban areas that have better energy infrastructure, and this has put strain on the poorly maintained infrastructure. This paper provides an insight into the future of energy in Africa considering the global clamour for increased RES penetration and the economic aspirations of the developing countries. This paper investigates the impact of adopting new technologies for African grids, and its implication as the world goes into the fourth industrial revolution (4IR).

With global warming, rise in the greenhouse gas emissions and the sudden increase in natural catastrophes attributed to climate change, global attention is shifting greatly towards the adoption of renewable energy sources and most importantly, the adoption of solar PV as well as wind turbines in the generation of electricity. A report by the International Energy Agency on Solar Photovoltaics cites carbon emissions as a major cause of global warming and recommends the need to cut the same by 50% in order to maintain a stable increase in global temperature by 2050 [1].

Additionally, studies estimate that about 620 million people do not have access to basic electricity services in sub Saharan Africa [2] [3]. Further, the study [3] reveals that sub- Saharan Africa has the least developed economies in the African continent as well as the world. These two factors provide a compelling reason to review the future of energy in Africa. Another study on the African energy industry estimates that about 130 million households in sub-Saharan Africa are dependent on energy sources such as kerosene, charcoal, candles among others [2]. Some reports indicate that African countries have poor energy infrastructure characterized by weak and old grids. Infrastructure maintenance is an issue as it is priority based. High priority areas are characterized by high energy consumption patterns and therefore receive relatively fast response to faults. To underscore this, a report by the Alliance for Rural Electrification [4] indicates that the quality of power provided by mini-grids surpasses that offered by national utilities in the rural areas. This report also cites the application of mini grids as a key driver to economic growth in these communities.

This paper reviews at a high level, the current state of the African energy sector and the emerging trends from the available texts. It largely examines the challenges faced by the grid, the lessons from energy efficient economies and the relevance of the current trend in the need for national industrial aspirations and the clamour for environmental protection and climate change.


The challenges facing electricity grids can be classified in different ways. A study conducted by the UCT Graduate Business School [5] however classifies the power challenges in five major areas. These areas include underdeveloped power infrastructure, unreliable supply of electricity, high cost of power and unequal and low access to electricity. The study notes that the cumulative installed capacity of SSA is much lesser compared to individual OECD countries such as Spain. The study further exploits the impact of this energy scenario on businesses operating in African countries with at least 1% of the businesses operating in five major economic sub-Saharan economies being reliant on back-up generators.

These challenges feed into one another. The challenge of low and unequal access to electricity is applicable in all sub- Saharan countries due to poor record of social welfare. A great population of SSA is mainly rural and they are characterized by lack of industries which have been the motivation for utilities to supply reliable power to most places.

In order to attain a universal access by the next decade, Africa needs to grow the electricity market by 8.4% annually. This is according to a research conducted by Wartsila [6]. To achieve this, there is need to have concerted effort between the political class and the project financiers. This report further indicates that there has been an added 13.4GW across the SSA and this is mainly attributed to the Chinese penetration into the region as well as the IPP development. A report by the rural electrification alliance further points out that the growth of renewable energy programs has mainly been driven by non-governmental organization as opposed to the government and as such, the inequalities in access to energy still persist [4].

With 13% of the world population and at 4% consumption of the world energy, the challenge of energy  access in Africa cannot be overemphasized [3].


The case for the European grids is important in designing policy framework for our national grids and in the decision of the type of desired energy mix. It is of great importance to review the current energy mix for a few of the leading green energy markets. This is important in order to draw reliable conclusions as to how the adoption of renewable energy, especially the intermittent generation should can be done.

First, we look at the current energy mix of Germany and compare the consumption of 2002 to that of 2018. It can be deduced that the global goal is to reduce the carbon emissions as opposed to an unplanned trial at eradicating the same. It is observed that in about 16 years, the solar PV grew by over 45GWp which is more than the total addition to the sub-Saharan Africa countries in the last decade. It should also be noted that the annual contribution of solar PV in the Germany’s energy mix stood at 8.5% for the year 2018. Such statistics are important in the formulation of energy policy especially where the storage of energy is not given. Hydro power had a minimal increase while the reliance on uranium drastically reduced.

To clearly understand the confluence of other structures that influence the viability of renewable energy projects, we need to look at the power exchanges that take place between Germany and the rest of Europe. The following figure gives the statistics of the power exchange between Germany and some of the countries whose power systems are interlinked.

What is evident from the figure is that Germany relies on imports from the surrounding countries which are not necessarily generating green energy. For instance, Germany exported more power to France, to Netherlands and to Czechoslovakia in 2018. This is an indicator that the geographical location of Germany as a country within its power pool has advantaged it and can thus be able to dispatch part of its generation when need arises. Further, it goes without saying that it can rely on the generation from Eastern Europe for its power needs when there is a general shortage of energy. With France still operating its nuclear power plants, the stability of the electric grid is assured.

Statistics suggest that the highest deployment of gas as a source of energy would reach a maximum of 92.9% at a full load in some regions of Germany. This suggests that about 27.6 GWp of installation is online at a maximum gas deployment on a national level. It is important as well to consider that the total connected capacity in Germany as of 2018 was about 80GWp. As such solar PV accounts for very little contribution in the face of this massive demand. It is worth noting that gas is the only source of power whose capacity has increased with the increase in intermittent generation. While this is self-explanatory in terms of increased ramping and load following [8], it is a worthy lesson for African utilities and utility planners.

Secondly, it worth noting that nuclear remains the most frequently deployed source of energy at full load. With 98.2% maximum deployment and 84% minimum deployment at full load, this is an indicator of the need to have a stable generation source online, at most times. This also suggests that about all the time, more than 84% of the nuclear generation capacity is online. This kind of stability is important in meeting the intermittencies that result from increasing power injection from unscheduled generation; sometimes attributed to poor weather forecast and poor scheduling in the real time markets [8].

This section indicates the need to develop a robust generation framework which complements the failures or shortfalls of the other sources. The need for comprehensive load following and reserves has been addressed in many texts[9]–[11] and this section emphasizes the need for flexibility within a utility generation framework.


Mini grids and Micro grids

Mini-grids are generally described as decentralized energy sources serving a particular community or a group of people within a small area [12]. Decentralized energy sources are taking a leading role in the present current energy dispensation. According to Sionshansi, [13], consumers are headed towards self-generation; often referred to as prosumers. The study points out that there is a great potential for the development of off grid energy sources where the consumers are fully self-reliant, or they are grid-assisted to meet their load demand. In the assessment of value of decentralized energy sources, a study by MIT [14] notes that the use of distributed energy sources portends both locational and non-locational values. It is in the interest of the suppliers of energy to provide reliable and affordable energy to their customer while at the same time, this service should be cost effective. Sionshansi [13] notes that in developed countries, mini-grids and micro grids are becoming a necessity out of the need for power system resilience. This is not the case for the African continent. With over 620 million people without access to electricity in the sub-Saharan Africa alone, the real target for electricity service providers should be the provision of reliable and affordable power to the communities.

In order to achieve sustainable energy for all, there is need to for an increased uptake of mini-grids in the African continent. It is notable that the locational benefits associated with the deployment of mini-grids and micro-grids provide an incentive of adoption of the same by utilities and general independent power producers whose interests are in provision of energy. Some of these locational advantages include but are not limited to modularized designs to meet the power needs of the people, system reliability and resiliency, general provision of energy, power quality, easy maintenance as the spatial coverage is limited among others [14]. It is important to consider the impacts of these energy sources in the light of developing communities while not forgetting that the future of Africa’s development is tied to the global progress. Therefore, it possible to counter-argue that while it is imperative to provide energy access to the people through decentralized means, the fast rate of global development cannot be matched if we are dependent on such sources of energy. Therefore, on a more comprehensive scheme, there is need to develop a national framework that works in tandem with these systems to ensure that eventually, the electricity demand per capita on the African continent is at par with the global average. Considering this, it is important to comprehensively develop infrastructural policy that accelerates both decentralized and conventional power systems.

It has been suggested that mini grids and off-grid connections are going to provide for the needs of over 70% of new electricity installations in sub-Saharan Africa by 2040 [16]. This accounts for much of the rural based populations which account for over 70% of the population in sub-Saharan Africa. This means that over about 50% of the population in Africa shall be served by mini girds or small off-grid systems.

Most operational mini-grids in Africa are can be smartly controlled and monitored through cloud-based applications. The future of any decentralized African grid could be suggested to take a form of communication between two adjacent mini-grids interconnected through a mini-grid ‘tie-line’ or ‘intertie’. The capacity to do this will provide the required stability in meeting the insufficiency arising from one localized mini-grid by another. In the study on the grid of the future, the authors note that by using the current smart grid applications, the existing utility capabilities can be highly stretched [17]. Decentralized grids can be more robust by localization of electricity generation and distribution while factoring in the use of intelligent networks. This implies that there is need to model new forms of networks that work for populations. Further research would however need to be put into the design and management of the systemic challenges resulting from such connectivity. This would be in turn lead to the development of regional coordinated utilities which would be essential in provision of stable power to many communities.

Increased Regulation

In the advent of the mini grids and micro grids, most governments have formed frameworks to manage the electrification process of the rural areas. As pointed out in other studies, the impact of introducing small scale embedded generations into the network has adverse implications on both the technical and financial operations of the utility [18], [19]. However, it is important to consider regulations as far as the quality of designs and infrastructure is concerned. There is need to enforce adherence to the national grid codes for the mini grid and off grid developers in order to present an opportunity of re-using the infrastructure in expansion. Sustainable development of energy infrastructure should be at the centre of all designs that are to be implemented.

Independent Power Producers

The African energy sector is set to have an increased number of independent power producers. With an estimated double population of 2.3 billion people by 2050,[2], the African energy market is set to attract more private investment. A study by the UCT Graduate Business School on the IPPs in Africa indicate that as of 2017, about 18 countries in the sub- Saharan Africa, excluding South Africa had IPP footprints [20]. A total of 59 projects have been identified. This study further notes that about 82% of these projects are thermal. Trends suggest that the grid of the future in Africa is set to witness increasing intermittent renewable energy connection.

As such, given the state of the energy networks in most sub- Saharan Africa, independent power producers are mainly going to get involved in provision of power to the rural population. Deployment of these systems have been motivated by the ease of installation, the operational cost and the need for electricity [16].

Several countries have adopted Integrated Renewable Plans as well. South Africa has particularly adopted a two-pronged strategy to reduce its dependency on coal. These include the adoption of renewable energy through the independent power producers’ procurement plan as well as the set targets for small scale embedded generations. Its IPP Energy program has been largely addressed in many studies [21] [22] [23]. The impacts of renewable energy especially from distributed generation has also been widely covered in several studies [19], [24]. South Africa’s case is different from the other sub- Saharan African countries. Most sub-Saharan countries do not allow for the grid connection of intermittent sources of energy on to the grid due to increasing levels of variability that are introduced into the system. This implies that there is a possibility of increased independent power producers being off grid. The success or failure of these IPP programs is partly dependent on private investment in the sector as well. [20]. Other countries that have successfully implemented policy frameworks in line with development of community based mini grids include Senegal, Tanzania and Kenya [16]. Kenya successfully developed and implemented the largest single windfarm project in Africa with about 300MWp generation from 365 wind turbines [25]. This specifically points towards a new energy era in which we are set to see more investments in the energy sector in Africa.

New Utility Business Roles and Models

In the review of new business models for utilities [26] the authors cite five global trends which are driving the disruption in the energy sector. These include technological advancements, change in climate, shrinking energy sources, changes in population and social change. This study estimates that about two thirds of the greenhouse emissions can be traced back to the energy sector. The figure below captures the impact of these trends on the energy sector and the disruption that come with them.

In their study, the authors argue that traditional utilities have a greater potential in actively being part of the generation market, deployment of the smart metering equipment and playing a bigger role in the demand side management. The African utility market will have to adapt to survive. This transformation of the utility players is greatly tied with sustainable energy access for all. Failure to change will may lead to less electricity sector reforms and thus cutting back on the gains that could have been made.

The following figure is extracted from [26] and it shows the emerging value chains available for the utilities and other energy sector players. The roles assumed in these models vary and are well discussed in the same study.

Advancement in the battery storage technologies is bound to unlock the disruptive effect of adopting intermittent sources of energy. The Australian Energy Market Operator report [28] predicts that with energy storage, there shall be a significant difference in residential electricity consumption patterns. While the change in this area, especially in battery pricing and battery performance has stagnated, a breakthrough could prove to be a turning point in the operations of utility. The effects of a mass adoption of storage systems comes with a lot of other impacts discussed in the study by Grovez [27].

What is however notable is that adoption of new business models and storage are key in achieving the sustainable energy access for all as captured in the millennium development goals. Within the African context, it is important to note that most of the operational solar PV off grid systems have storage. A massive uptake could have a far- reaching impact on many utility models and operations.

Restructured Energy Mix

From the earlier figure showing the export and imports of energy by Germany, there are two strong indicators. The markets within which the utilities deal is as important as its local and international power pools. This paper argues that these two should be a priority for African power grids if the adoption of intermittent renewable energy is going to be sustained and at the same time achieve the continental economic aspirations. Further, it is herein argued that Africa, being strictly a consumer economy would find itself in a difficult and slow economic growth phase if it has to depend on the technological advancements from elsewhere.

A 2018 report on the African Energy Industry [2] provides the following insights. It estimates that 23% of the African energy needs are met by oil. 14% of the energy needs is met by coal, gas accounts for 14% of the energy requirements and 48% of the energy needs in Africa is sourced from biomass. Hydro energy, nuclear and other renewable sources of energy account for about 1% of the Africa’s energy needs.

Sub-Saharan Africa, save for South Africa, is highly dependent on hydro power. This varies to the tunes of 51%. A report by Wartsila notes that about 18% of the energy demands for the sub-Saharan countries is derived from fossil fuels and about 24% is supplied from natural gas. Zambia forms an interesting case study as 2016 statistics indicate that it was 90% dependent of hydro power and this could potentially plunge any country into a crisis as the climatic conditions keep varying. [6]

The underlying challenge posed by intermittency has been widely reviewed in several studies [29] [30] [31] [32]. In their study, Haas et al. [32] looks at the impact of the intermittent renewable energy sources on the system demand. The following diagram shows how various intermittent sources vary with the demand.

Intermittent energy sources are more volatile in their generation and they require accurate forecasting and other sources of energy to meet the insufficiency that may result due to their deployment. This has been widely covered in many studies [8][33]. Very little literature exists on the impact of intermittent renewable energy sources on grids that are characteristically weak. This paper argues that, it is imperative to set mechanisms through which the challenges resulting from the intermittency can be met before connecting the sources to the grid. With the poorly maintained power grids, priority should first be given to support infrastructure before allowing for the connection of these energy sources.

In his study, Gaunt [31] notes that the clamor for increased penetration of intermittent renewable energy sources into the grid is bound to reduce system reliability. This study reveals the dilemma that has existed in most developing economies as to whether it is important to adopt nuclear energy, develop other energy sources or adopt the renewable energy programs as espoused in many countries’ integrated renewable energy plans.

It is our opinion in this paper that the LCOE for intermittent energy sources should be considered in reference to the lifetime of the energy source as well as the capacity factor for each. Further, it is also important that studies conducted in this area factor in the cost of upgrading or overhauling the electricity infrastructure in most SSA countries to cater for the technical challenges that result from the need to connect on the grid. This paper proposes that more focus should be put on developing a structured African energy market. Further, it is important that equal campaign and emphasis be put on the need to improve the current state of the African electricity networks, reduce the outage index and improve the general system stability. Through this, it is will be possible to increase the amount intermittent energy sources that can be connected onto the grid.

Additionally, it is proposed that the development of mini grids and micro grids be done as a mitigation in the provision of the basic energy requirement of the rural population. This is because, fast growing and sustainable economies cannot be supported on mini grids. It is our view that it is not feasible in the long run, to meet the current rate of population growth and the emerging needs for electricity within these populations. It is thus important to consider the national socio-economic aspirations while developing energy policy.

A report by CNBC Africa [34] highlighted that Africa is set to experience reduced financing in coal projects, witness an increasing renewable energy demand, witness increased battery storage adoption, and experience the rise in distributed generations which will lead to eventual integration of the renewable energy sources to the grid. However, it is important to review this development with respect to the fact that Africa has been a consumer economy for most of the time. Africa has the highest rates of unemployment and the highest global population growth. It also has the greatest global energy poverty levels [2]. With increased globalization and the looming fourth industrial revolution, there is a high likelihood of witnessing increased levels of inequality between industrialized nations and African countries. This paper emphasizes the need to create a sustainable balance that reflect the urgency of the present energy needs in sub-Saharan Africa while focusing on the greater socio-economic aspirations that can raise the living standards of most of the African population.


The underlying argument that this paper seeks to promote is need for a harmonized and robust energy infrastructure as well as markets for the African economies. It is important to ensure that over 70% of the population in the rural areas which has no access to electricity gets connected in one way or another. This can be largely be done through the application of both mini grids and off grid connections. However, it is equally important to note that by 2050, Africa’s population is set to double to about 2.3billion people. The need for provision of jobs and industrial activities for this growing population cannot be overemphasized. There is a need to strike a balance between environmental conservation, reduction of global greenhouse emissions and national aspirations geared toward creation of sustainable mechanisms that address the challenges of the future.

Secondly, this paper argues that at present, it is important to develop energy infrastructure that can withstand the variabilities that are set to be introduced into the electricity networks by increased solar PV penetration. It is further argued that the green energy campaign by global players should not primarily target to increase the amount of solar PV on the networks before the upgrade of the systems is done. Creation of robust systems should be seen as the most important pillar in sustaining the energy supply of the future.

Thirdly, stakeholders should develop a greater framework through which intra-national regions can have different energy sources and markets. This calls for the a totally new study that will not only unbundle the current utility framework as is in most African countries but will eventually enhance a national balance through the different energy mix. Further, experience has shown that those countries with a properly established market and operating within a well- structured power pool have been able to cope well with increased penetration levels of solar PV. If these three point are well implemented, it will be possible to integrate higher levels of intermittent energy sources and while creating a right atmosphere for to manage the challenges of the future.


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