Africa has installed just 0.01% of its technical wind potential, and experts are pushing to exploit the under-developed resource to help tackle the region’s severe power shortage. 

Unlike the continent’s immense and more obvious solar potential, the wind sector’s economies of scale mean it will not develop via decentralised networks. Generation must plug into national grids to make financial sense. 

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A 2020 study commissioned by the International Finance Corporation (IFC) found onshore wind resources in many more African countries than previously thought, creating a collective technical capacity of 176,000 terawatt hours (TWh) per annum — enough to power the continent’s annual energy demand 250 times over. 

Significant potential is located close to towns and cities, and winds are often strongest in the morning and early evening when electricity demand is highest. “We saw that wind, particularly near the coast, tends to generate almost as an inverse of solar,” says Sean Whittaker, principal industry specialist for renewables at IFC. “From a complementary standpoint, that is huge because in power system planning it is not just how much power you get, but when you get it.” 

The study used the latest high-resolution, cloud-based models to pinpoint pockets of wind that could not be identified just five years ago. “Wind is highly localised,” says Mr Whittaker. “It’s one factor that makes it tougher to develop than solar.”

World’s windiest sites

At end-2020, Africa had installed 6.4 gigawatts (GW) of its 58,400GW of technical potential identified by IFC. That represents less than 1% of the 707GW of onshore wind installed globally, as identified by the Global Wind Energy Council. 

Some 19 African states have projects operating today, but the vast majority are concentrated in South Africa (2.5GW), Egypt (1.5GW) and Morocco (1.3GW). All three brought new capacity online last year, and are among the 17 countries that, according to IFC, have the potential to rival the most productive onshore wind sites in the world.

That list also includes places not traditionally known for their strong wind potential, such as Djibouti, Ethiopia, Madagascar and Namibia. Another inclusion is Algeria, which hosts a whopping 7717GW of technical wind potential — more than any other African state — of which it has installed just 10 megawatts (MW).  

Last year, Senegal opened west Africa’s first large-scale wind farm, a 158MW facility in the Thiès region backed by the UK’s Actis and Ireland’s Mainstream Renewable Power. fDi Markets shows the latter to be the most active foreign investor in Africa’s nascent wind sector, followed by Enel, EDF, Engie and Windvision.  

Grid challenge looms large

After accounting for financial, environmental, social and logistical constraints, Africa’s commercial wind capacity will be significantly less than the 58,400GW identified by IFC. But the sheer magnitude of its technical potential means developing even 1% would satisfy a significant portion of Africa’s energy needs. 

The biggest technical obstacle is the limited reach of many countries’ grids. Mauritania, for instance, has “some incredible wind resources, but much of which is pretty far from the grid”, notes Mr Whittaker. 

The continent’s solar sector has used its natural advantages to overcome this problem. Not only is the resource more equally dispersed than wind, but its cost structure has allowed the sector to develop via small off-grid solutions. “For distributed generation within a community, wind is much harder than solar, as it doesn't benefit from the same modularity at a small scale,” says Mr Whittaker. The cost per kilowatt hour (KWh) of a 1MW wind farm is much more than a 30MW wind farm. Data collected by the International Renewable Energy Agency shows that less than 1% of Africa’s installed wind capacity is off-grid. 

However, Mr Whittaker believes one off-grid application that holds “tremendous opportunities” is powering Africa’s huge number of mining sites. Namibia and Botswana are top contenders, given their wind potential and sizeable mining sectors.

Logistics aside, the lack of independent power producers (IPP) operating across the continent creates commercial obstacles to plugging into the grid. “In many countries in Africa, you still have vertically integrated utilities. Moving to a model where IPPs are primarily providing power, and then looking at wind IPPs, is quite a shift,” notes Mr Whittaker. 

Establishing open and transparent auction processes would allow IPPs in many countries to generate wind at the global standard of $0.04–0.07/KWh, according to IFC, making it among the cheapest forms of new generation in parts of Africa.

This article first appeared in the August/September print edition of fDi Intelligence. View a digital edition of the magazine here.