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Africa basks in the sun with little to show in offshore clean energy

By Beatrice Nyabira and Judy Muigai

Unlike their onshore counterparts which have managed to see several gigawatts of renewable energy installed over the last few years, offshore renewable energy projects have taken significantly longer to gain traction on the continent.  One driving factor for this low uptake is that many African countries already possess abundant renewable energy resources for onshore generation of energy. Unlike our counterparts in the tropics, we enjoy reliable sunlight due to our proximity to the equator and we benefit from a plethora of arid and semi-arid regions which experience intense sun radiation and wind all year round. Many African countries also receive seasonal winds like the Monsoon and Harmattan winds in reliable rotations throughout the year, which boosts supply of wind power.

Furthermore, as there are sizeable tracts of land across Africa which remain scarcely populated or uninhabited, there is sufficient land capacity to expand onshore applications, before considering offshore options. In contrast, offshore energy plants have largely had better uptake from countries that lack adequate space for the scale of onshore power generation required to satisfy their energy needs.

Another key factor behind the paucity of offshore energy plants is inadequate financial resources to invest in offshore applications, which tend to be prohibitively expensive. To illustrate the heavy cost structure, one need only look at Phase One of the Hornsea offshore wind farm constructed off the East coast of England at staggering cost of 4.2 billion British Pounds, which is substantially higher than the cost of an onshore project of the same production capacity (1.2 GW).

African countries also struggle with the technical capacity for research and installation of offshore energy applications. Offshore technologies including wind, solar, ocean thermal and tidal waves are relatively new modes of renewable energy generation and require extensive research and specialized expertise. Feasibility studies for offshore plants are complex due to analysis of scientific data relating to migration patterns for marine wildlife and climate change impacts on water levels. With many African countries struggling to cover competing needs with limited resources, it is no wonder that the high upfront costs have dampened their appetite for offshore applications.

Despite all the challenges, it may be time for African countries to pay a bit more attention to the potential of offshore sources of energy.  Some of their benefits include reduced land use, greater efficiency (particularly in the case of offshore wind turbines and offshore solar PV projects) and the ability to generate electricity close to coastal cities and towns, thereby reducing transmission and distribution costs.  With the gradual growth of expertise in the area and breakthroughs in research and technological advances, these projects should also become more affordable and can hopefully start to contribute to the energy mix and electricity access for millions on the continent.   

The article was published in the Business Daily on 17 May 2023 and can be viewed here