African countries look towards interconnectors for electricity trade and revenue generation.
In June 2007, Terna S.p.A. and Société Tunisienne de L'électricité et du Gaz, the electricity grid operators of Italy and Tunisia respectively, signed a memorandum of understanding. The plan: to build a subsea interconnection cable capable of transmitting electricity across both countries via the Mediterranean; an energy bridge under the sea.
With time, the details of the project have become clearer. At a cost of 850 million euros, both countries with construct a 600 MW cable extending for 200 kilometers and reaching a depth of 800 meters. The two-way cable, called the ELMED interconnector, will stretch from the Cape Bon peninsula in Tunisia to the Sicilian coastal province of Trapiani. While this is a something of a flagship project in the African energy space, the idea of interconnectors is very much established.
Electricity interconnectors are high-voltage cables that connect electricity systems of different countries and regions. They enable the trade of electricity across countries, particularly surplus electricity, and can be laid undersea, underground or overhead. Where interconnectors tend to find the most usage is in the area of renewable energy.
One of the major issues with renewable energy is its transience and instability. Let us examine a scenario where your nation's major energy source is wind. Some days will be more or less windy than others, which means that you will have issues with both oversupply and undersupply of electricity from your wind farms to the grid. Assuming you have other backup energy sources such as gas turbines or hydropower – as you should; energy systems are best when diversified – all oversupply becomes waste. When you don’t need the electricity, you shut down your wind turbines, as has happened in countries such as the United Kingdom.
What interconnectors do is turn waste into profit; all excess electricity is traded. Power stations are run at full capacity, all electricity that can be, is generated, and that which isn’t used is sold, creating a revenue stream for the country. This is where Africa stands to benefit.
Africa’s renewable energy potential is near-limitless. The continent is home to large rivers with powerful currents, abundant sunlight and the world’s largest subtropical desert, various mountain ranges with wind currents, and massive underground heat, being the oldest continent in the world geologically. As a result, the continent has potential to generate massive amounts of renewable energy annually, with the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) estimating that the renewable energy capacity in the continent could top 310 GW by 2030.
The bulk of Africa’s renewable energy potential is in solar power; the African Development Bank (AfDB) estimates that the continent’s capacity for solar power generation could reach as high as 10 terawatts. This is, by some distance, the largest of any region in the world. The potential for solar power in Africa is so vast that the supply far exceeds the demand. This is where interconnectors can come to play a crucial role in the continent’s economy, or that of individual countries.
The idea of interconnectors is not new in Africa. Various countries in Africa have always created networks regional transmission networks for the import and export of electricity. Countries like Togo and Benin often rely on imports from Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire to meet electricity shortfalls, and various countries across the Economic Community of West African States such as Nigeria, Benin, Burkina Faso, and Côte d’Ivoire have interconnected their grids.
However, these countries may not generate enough electricity to meet their own internal demand, hence reducing or even eliminating totally the potential for revenue generation through electricity trade. After all, Sub-Saharan Africa has one of the lowest rates of access to electricity in the world.
Countries can really take advantage of interconnectors when electricity generating capacity can exceeds demand, and numerous African countries can achieve this by properly investing in renewable energy. The major reason why the Tunisia-Italy interconnector exists is the former country’s large renewable energy potential. Italy has clearly stated that one of its goals in importing energy from Tunisia is the de-carbonization of its energy supply. Instead of generating electricity with high polluting fossil fuels like gas and coal, the country can instead import clean energy from Tunisia, which is in the process of ramping up its renewable energy infrastructure.
A lot of African countries are in a spot of opportunity. Many countries are dependent on fossil fuel assets to generate electricity, and yet find themselves sorely insufficient. The development of new energy infrastructure can be done through the path of renewable energy. Some countries are awash with renewable energy potential: Mozambique, DR Congo, Ethiopia, and Angola with hydropower; Egypt, Morocco, Ethiopia, and Sudan with solar; South Africa, Egypt, and Ethiopia with wind; the vast potential for geothermal energy in East Africa.
By ramping up their renewable energy capacity, these countries can go further than just powering their grids, they can build energy infrastructure particularly targeted at exports, thus creating a steady revenue source. Countries low on renewable energy potential can strike partnerships with other countries a la Italy with Tunisia. This could be done by co-operating on renewable energy projects in other countries with the view towards powering national grids via imports through interconnectors. This then eliminates the need for fossil fuel infrastructure, which these countries often default to.
The North African countries are particularly primed to benefit from this phenomenon. As Europe faces the twin dilemma of reducing energy imports from Russia as well as reducing carbon emissions, the renewables-rich countries in the region could strike deals to export electricity to Europe and to Sub-Saharan countries. North African countries already have high rates of domestic electrification; thus, they find themselves presented with the right set of circumstances for increasing revenue.
It is unacceptable that a continent so rich in renewable energy should find itself so underpowered. The key to overcoming this may lie in regional co-operation and interconnection. With the continent in a still-nascent stage of energy growth and renewables becoming more cost-competitive, African countries ae well-poised to benefit.
Sandra7 months ago
Africa has a lot of untapped potentials for sure