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African countries are skipping coal and going straight to renewables

Africa’s developing economies have a choice to make between using coal or renewable energy.

For many developed countries, there was a recognisable progression in how they generated energy at different phases of development, with a stage of reliance on coal-burning as a seemingly inevitable first step towards a more advanced economy.

But for a developing country in today’s world, there are more options when it comes to choosing how to improve their energy infrastructure. In some cases, it’s possible for a developing economy to “leapfrog” over coal dependence entirely, moving instead to renewables.

That’s great news not just for the people of those countries, who will be spared the health risks associated with burning fossil fuels, but also the world — because as Africa starts to boom, as many predict, it could be a disaster in terms of worsening climate change.

That’s because there are nearly one billion people living in Africa with no electricity whatsoever.

And as the continent as a whole seems poised for a new era of economic growth, one of the big priorities will be to ensure that those people get full access to electricity. Which means governments are going to have to decide how it will be generated.

So far, there seems to be an encouraging trend towards opting for renewables. And why not? They’re relatively cheap, and they don’t involve huge emissions of greenhouse gases.

You might be wondering whether it’s possible to generate enough renewable energy for all those people, or if some kind of coal / renewable mix will be required.

Well, according to recent research, there are 21 African countries where renewable energy sources are abundant enough to completely satisfy the countries’ energy needs by 2030, if steps are taken now to build infrastructure in that direction.

This process — of skipping over a step in the development process that previously seemed inevitable — is known as leapfrogging, and it’s probably one of the only cool things about lagging in development.

So for example, in many developing countries where people did not have access to good telephone infrastructure, the seemingly necessary stop of connecting the country with phone lines was “leapfrogged” by instead switching to cell phone technology from the start.

Obviously we’ll have to wait and see how this all works out – and there’s no doubt that coal and natural gas will continue to play a role in Africa’s development. But it looks likely that renewables will play an important role in the story.

Jason Blackeye

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