Small businesses are the lifeblood of local communities in Kuruman, South Africa, although economic difficulties make their future uncertain…until the right support comes along.

When the sun sets, a lot of things become much harder to do without electricity. In simple terms, an electric light can let someone continue studying after dark or allow an entrepreneur to work for longer. Electricity can empower those in the home to join the workforce and keep that workforce healthy. It will also power machines, factories, industries, and businesses that drive a nation’s economy. There is a direct connection between electricity supply and economic growth—one literally powers the other.

Southern Africa is starved for electricity. Its power sectors remain underdeveloped across key indicators, including access, capacity, and consumption. In sub-Saharan Africa around 600 million people live without electricity, and even where there is power there are problems with the supply: in Zimbabwe, load shedding that uses rolling blackouts to share an inadequate supply is in use 18 hours a day. There are similar stories across southern Africa with simply not enough electricity to meet demand, and it is slowing the region’s economic growth and development. To meet its current socio-economic needs, southern Africa needs more energy.

And soon, Africa will need even more energy to support a rapidly growing population that is expected to more than double to 2.4 billion within the next 35 years. Growth will be most pronounced in urban areas with an estimated 60 percent of all Africans living in cities by 2050. This growing population and urbanization will more urgently drive the demand for electricity. There is a crucial nexus between water, energy, and food, the essential elements of well-being. Energy is needed to treat, drain, desalinate, and distribute water for drinking and sanitation, as well as for agriculture. Irrigating, fertilizing, harvesting, and preserving foodstuffs is increasingly energy intensive, with food production and distribution accounting for 30 percent of global energy consumption. It’s hard to underestimate the importance of access to electricity, but in southern Africa energy solutions are abundant, accessible, and sustainable.

Southern Africa is rich in potential power generation capacity, especially in the crucial area of renewables. While countries like Mozambique, Botswana, and South Africa have significant amounts of coal and gas, the emissions generated in a fossil fuel-based future will not only contribute to climate change and rising temperatures, but could also be responsible for as many as 50,000 premature deaths a year. As southern Africa develops its energy infrastructure over the coming years, an extraordinary opportunity exists to leapfrog dependence on fossil fuels straight to renewables. The continent has a huge advantage in its abundant natural resources: wind in South Africa, water in Zimbabwe, and plenty of sun everywhere. This enormous potential has also become easier to harness as renewable technologies become more efficient and associated costs decrease, especially for the most ubiquitous sources of wind and solar. The countries that comprise southern Africa are recognizing the important contribution renewables can make in solving their energy challenges.

In terms of installed capacity, Enel Green Power (EGP) is the largest private operator in Africa’s renewable sector. In South Africa, 2011 saw an overhaul of national energy policy with an ambitious and sustained push toward the development of renewable energy. EGP has actively supported this drive for sustainability, building seven solar and wind farms for an installed capacity of 520 megawatts―with the completion of existing wind farm projects the installed capacity will rise to 700 megawatts. These are contributing significantly to the South African government’s ambitious target of 17,800 megawatts of renewable power output in the next 10 years.

Meanwhile, EGP has begun operations at its first renewable energy plant in Zambia. The Ngonye solar PV facility in Lusaka taps into nearly 3,000 hours of sunlight a year, and once fully operational, could produce around 70 gigawatt hours annually—avoiding the emission of over 25,000 tons of CO2 annually. As well as contributing to international climate change goals, the solar plant diversifies Zambia’s energy mix, which currently relies on hydropower that is vulnerable to disruptions during drought. Crucially, the plant is supporting the government’s urgent push to improve electricity access throughout the country, but especially in underdeveloped rural areas.

The development of sustainable power plants is in line with the needs of southern Africa. Energy is the sustenance of all economies, and renewables can play a central role in the increasingly important food, water, and energy nexus. Renewables are probably the fastest and most affordable sustainable energy solution that can ensure energy access in southern Africa —and that will bring light, heat, connectivity, and productivity to an ever-growing population.

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