The energy and agriculture challenge

Energy access is essential for agricultural growth throughout ACP countries – but the change from fossil fuels to renewables is not without its challenges.

A solar field in Rwanda helps the long-term sustainability of the village,  is good for the environment and generates local employment  and education © S.Halai (USAID/POWER AFRICA)
A solar field in Rwanda helps the long-term sustainability of the village, is good for the environment and generates local employment and education © S.Halai (USAID/POWER AFRICA)

Friday, 23 December 2016

Energy transition is needed to mitigate climate change and meet the growing needs of the agriculture sector. New technologies are providing some innovative solutions.

Universal access to energy in sub-Saharan Africa is still clearly insufficient. Only a third of the population in this region – excluding South Africa – has an electrical connection, but this percentage drops by more than half when taking rural areas into account. Rates are much higher in the Caribbean and Pacific islands, but again the averages conceal wide disparities. For instance, only 15% of the inhabitants of Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands are connected to the national grid. The poorest people have little access to energy, but pay the highest prices. West African Economic and Monetary Union countries pay five times higher electricity prices than South Africa. In rural areas, the cost per kilowatt-hour (kWh) is three times more than in cities (see Electricity cost comparison, p22). The high reliance of island states on imported fossil fuel is responsible for the significantly higher energy costs in Caribbean and Pacific regions. 

Agriculture: energy consumer and producer 

It is not easy to quantify the agricultural sector’s energy needs. Agriculture in ACP countries is still largely represented by smallholder farmers, 90% of which are based on family labour and animal traction.

Small farms, however, require energy for some mechanised farm activities, as well as for irrigation, seed storage, processing, transport, etc. Only 4% of all cultivated land in sub-Saharan Africa is currently irrigated, and 10-20% of crops are lost every year due to a lack of appropriate crop storage and preservation. The high reliance of rural populations on biomass energy is another trait of ACP agriculture, with 80-90% of households consuming wood-based fuels (firewood, charcoal, green waste, etc.) for domestic energy. Although this dependence on local renewable energy resources has advantages, household pollution caused by fuel combustion for indoor cooking and heating is highly damaging and, according to WHO, claims the lives of almost 600,000 Africans each year. 

Added to family farming energy requirements are the growing irrigation, storage, processing and transportation needs of large commercial export-oriented farms. According to some experts, this situation calls for an integrated farm-scale approach, even in the current climate change setting. Energy transition – which should free our economies of fossil fuels before the end of this century and thus mitigate global warming – is a major challenge for modern agriculture, which is largely dependent on non-renewable fuels. “Our agriculture is very energy-intensive, with an energy efficiency rate of less than one, which means it consumes more calories than it produces. Mechanisation is the culprit, along with the use of nitrogen, phosphate and crop protection products,” says Benoît Daviron from the French agricultural research organisation, CIRAD. This situation is echoed in many discussions on “agroecology and the need to reintegrate crop and livestock production to complete the energy cycle on farms,” states Daviron. 

Farms are nevertheless able to generate their own energy through animal traction, but also by implementing new techniques such as biogas generation from agricultural waste, or having space to install solar panels to power a pump, for instance. Sarah Best, researcher at the International Institute for Environment and Development, stresses the importance of meeting the needs of small farms and processing companies at the local scale rather than thinking in terms of global requirements.

Which energy choices would be effective in addressing these issues? Many are heralding a massive shift to renewable energy. The French development agency, AFD, for instance, claims that, “energy transition in Africa will involve development of its renewable energy potential while ensuring energy access for everyone.”

The dual advantage of this choice is that it will overcome the reliance on fossil fuel and contribute to Africa’s energy independence. According to the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), “Africa’s renewable energy production potential is substantially higher than the current and estimated electrical consumption of the whole continent.” Hydropower already accounts for 60% of Africa’s power production, and many other sources of energy are dispersed throughout the continent (see map, p24).

Energy transition hinged on economic issues

The Africa Renewable Energy Initiative (AREI), endorsed by 54 African countries, has set out to achieve a minimum 10 gigawatt (GW) increase in renewable energy generation capacity by 2020, and 300 GW by 2030. AREI intends “to help African countries leapfrog to renewable energy systems that support their low-carbon development strategies while enhancing economic and energy security.”

But what about the cost effectiveness? The renewable energy market is still often perceived by investors as risky and unprofitable. The economic viability of such projects is evaluated on a scale of 10-20 years, whereas at the same time fossil fuels are benefiting from subsidy mechanisms that mask a higher actual cost. The NGO network Réseau Climat et Développement claims that, “Fossil fuel subsidies distort prices and hamper investment in renewable energy. These subsidies should gradually be shifted in favour of renewable energy projects,” especially since renewable energy costs are dropping. According to a Carbon Tracker Initiative study published in September 2016, it is now cheaper to generate 1 kWh via renewable energy sources than with fossil fuels. 

According to the Réseau Climat et Développement, a ‘business as usual’ scenario would be disastrous given current energy costs. “As energy consumption in Africa will be ten times higher by 2030, African countries will soon not be able to cover their energy costs in the absence of energy transition.” 

This NGO network is also calling for highly decentralised energy generation to facilitate universal access to energy, while claiming that, “mini-decentralised or off-grid power initiatives are more responsive to rural inhabitants’ needs.” Decentralising energy generation also offsets loss of energy along electrical grids – Africa has the worst energy inefficiency rate in the world due to its outdated infrastructure.

What funding is available for states to make this transition? Climate policies encourage donors to promote renewables. Of the €12.6 billion of international public funding in favour of climate mitigation initiatives between 2003 and 2015, 40% was earmarked for energy transition. This priority was reiterated in the 2015 Paris Agreement. At the Paris COP 21 climate summit, 10 donors pledged to jointly mobilise €8.9 billion for renewable energy, €4.5 billion of which has already been tabled to help set up facilities to generate 5.7 GW in renewable energy.

Times are definitely changing as, according to WWF, global investment in renewable energy generation in 2015 was more than twice as much as the €116 billion allocated to new coal and gas generation capacities.

Disappointment in agrofuels?

Agrofuel is another renewable energy source whose popularity seems to be dwindling. So-called first-generation fuels produced from rapeseed, maize or palm oil have tarnished the reputation of agrofuel. The fact that these fuel crops are grown in fields to the detriment of food crops has, according to some experts, increased speculation on farmland. Their poor energy efficiency rates are also at issue because of the energy needed for their production. 

Worse yet, their greenhouse gas (GHG) emission levels are often higher than those fuels they are replacing. Palm oil biodiesel, for example, emits 80% more GHG on average than standard diesel, according to an EC study published in June 2106 which takes land-use changes into account. 

Hardier crops like jatropha in Africa have yielded good results. In Garalo, Mali, many farmers have opted to intercrop it with food crops in order to produce jatropha seed oil, which they blend with diesel (see p26, Jatropha: an environmentally-friendly agrofuel?). Overall, however, the results have not lived up to researchers’ expectations, according to Lynn K. Mytelka at the United Nations University – Maastricht.

Agrofuels are nevertheless part of the energy mix. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) aims to increase the proportion of ethanol/biodiesel in transport fuels by 5% in 2020 and 15% in 2030. “In Malawi, the national policy on marketed fuel stipulates that it contains 10% biodiesel,” says Olu Ajayi, Senior Programme Coordinator/Specialist on Climate Change-Agriculture at CTA.

ECOWAS also aims to boost the proportion of other renewables by 35% by 2020 (48% in 2030), including 10% to replace power from large hydroelectricity plants in 2020 (19% in 2030). Meeting these objectives would lead to a 2.4 GW increase in renewable electricity capacity in 2020 and 7.6 GW in 2030.

Renewable energy filling the fuel gap 

Climate negotiations have also prompted developing countries to apply compatible development models in a shift away from fossil fuel use. In the Pacific Islands, there has been a spectacular turn around. 

Although largely dependent on imported oil, these countries have set very high renewable energy targets for 2020 (see bar chart on P21). This goal is in line with their very determined discussions during the climate negotiations in the face of the impending danger of rising sea levels for their islands. In Africa, the African Development Bank is committed to working closely with African countries to help them cope with climate change challenges. According to IRENA, almost half of all African countries have already undertaken an assessment of one or several available national renewable energy resources.  

 For more information, see: 

Roadmap for a renewable energy future (2016)

and Energy in the Post-2015 Development Framework

Magali Reinert

Other dossiers

The Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (CTA) is a joint international institution of the African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) Group of States and the European Union (EU). CTA operates under the framework of the Cotonou Agreement and is funded by the EU.