YALI Voices: Getting Energy to All Africans Through Renewable Sources

Sub-Saharan Africa has abundant renewable energy resources. The question is how to tap into them and reach the goal of supplying everyone in each of its regions with reliable, clean and affordable electricity.

At the 2016 Young African Leaders Initiative summit in Washington, the State Department’s Macon Phillips recorded a podcast with South African Mandela Washington Fellows Adele Boadzo and Tshegofatso Neeuwfan, who are both working to find clean energy solutions that could ultimately benefit the whole continent and help fight climate change.

In their discussion, Boadzo emphasized that Africa receives enough solar energy in one day to power the world for an entire year. Different African regions boast other renewable sources, such as wind, geothermal and hydro power. The barriers standing in the way of utilizing them can be overcome, she said.

Not everyone in Africa has electricity, and one of the biggest reasons is the lack of access in rural areas. “In order for us to get to these rural areas, we need to focus on distributed [generation] systems, which would largely use renewable energy systems,” she said.

Consumers need to be convinced, and both Boadzo and Neeuwfan said there are good arguments pointing to reduced costs and health benefits from switching to renewable energy.

Neeuwfan advised proceeding with an energy mix that increasingly incorporates renewable sources, owing to the fact that renewables cannot currently supply the base load of power by themselves because the power they generate is still intermittent.

“What appeals to [consumers], I think, may be changing the narrative for renewable energy. You have to show the customer how renewable energy gets them what they want,” he said.

Both Fellows studied electrical engineering to help prepare them for their careers, and they have big plans for the future. Neeuwfan hopes to start an enterprise that works on energy services and sees an opportunity to export some of South Africa’s renewable energy expertise to other African countries.

“Through the YALI experience I’ve met some Fellows in other countries, and there are great opportunities to collaborate,” he said, adding, “The region can benefit from the skills exchange and the ideas that we bring.”

Boadzo is starting an organization called Hope Rises Solar. It will be focused on “distributing solar lighting equipment, and will do this by empowering female solar entrepreneurs” to sell the equipment, she said.

Listen to the full podcast to learn more about Africa’s potential to take advantage of renewable energy sources: https://goo.gl/CEvr1j

Don’t have access to SoundCloud, iTunes or Google Play? Read a transcript of the podcast below:

U.S. DEPARTMENT OF STATE

YALI Voices Podcast
Renewable Energy Innovation

Audio file: https://goo.gl/CEvr1j

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♪ Yes we can ♪
♪ Sure we can ♪
♪ Change the world ♪

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MACON PHILLIPS: Greetings, young African leaders. This is the YALI Voices podcast, your home for sharing the best stories from the Young African Leaders Initiative Network.

I’m Macon Phillips and I am so glad you’ve joined us today.

Before we get started, don’t forget to subscribe to the podcast on iTunes and Google Play and visit YALI.state.gov to stay up-to-date on all things YALI.

If you like what we’re doing here, please take a moment to recommend us to a friend.

I’m joined by Adele Boadzo and Tshegofatso Neeuwfan, two Mandela Washington Fellows
from South Africa who are active in researching renewable energy solutions to climate change.

Both Adele and Tshego studied electrical engineering, and they both found themselves
thrust into roles as young pioneering trailblazers entering the South African energy sector.

Tshego was driven by a sense of community service in his work to create opportunities for those who are beyond where the power grid reaches, exploring how solar power could be a better fit for customer needs instead of getting electricity the conventional way through fossil fuels.

Adele’s interest in solar energy was born from personal tragedy. Her grandmother suffered fatal burns from an accidental gas cook stove explosion, a tragedy Adele believes can be averted with cleaner, safer sources of energy.

Let’s jump right into my conversation on renewable energy with Adele and Tshego.

So I wanna bring us up to the sort of current day, and part of that, Adele, is kind of understanding the story of how you went from the factory doing shift work, getting dirty, and trying to learn the hard way — there was probably some shocks involved there and other types of things — but to what you’re doing now, because I know did it by way of a consulting firm and another energy company and then actually you made another shift into the solar work. So can you just quickly touch on that path?

ADELE BOADZO: Yeah, so I spent about two-and-a-half years at the steel company, but at that time I had done quite well and I really wanted to move to the next stage, which was senior engineer, and the process to get there in that kind of environment is just “be here for five to 10 years” and that wasn’t good enough for me. At the same time, during my undergrad I was quite excited about renewable energy, so I started my master’s in renewable energy projects whilst at the steel company.

So whilst doing my master’s I looked around for employment and found consulting. I thought consulting to be a good fit because I’d now be exposed to a range of companies, a range of experts, and a new way of thinking because I was excited about renewables. I wanted to solve problems, but it doesn’t – I wasn’t fully getting that in my current job, but consulting really teaches you how to become a critical problem solver, communicator, and I thought that would be really great for my development. So I joined a consulting company, focused on power, oil and gas, and then finished my master’s and realized that my passion is really in renewable energy projects. This is what I want to be doing. So then I moved on to a solar company. So I now run solar PV projects as well for South Africa’s commercial companies, business companies, large farms, etc.

MR. PHILLIPS: So in that period when you were doing the consulting, that was beyond just South Africa, that was regional —

MS. BOADZO: Yes, that was regional.

MR. PHILLIPS: — Can you give us a 20-second lesson in what everyone should know about energy in Africa, because I would imagine that time you probably — you learned a lot on the factory floor about circuits and electrical engineering, and then it sounds like during this consulting work it was much more policy and academic and knowledge. So yeah, can you give us a little bit of that summary of what people should know about sub-Saharan African energy?

MS. BOADZO: So sub-Saharan Africa’s filled with amazing and abundant energy resources.
If I think of my favorite one, solar, which is — so I keep quoting my favorite statistic. So we have from Africa one day of solar is enough to power the world for an entire year. So with that kind of resources, imagine what you could do. So we have different areas in the continent which has good, big specific areas. When you think of South Africa in terms of renewables, you’re looking at solar and some wind. East Africa-side, you have geothermal, hydro. West Africa, you have solar as well. Central Africa: hydro. So we have all these resources, but it’s currently — most of it is untapped. So there are quite a few barriers standing in our way, but I think we can overcome them. One of them is finances, political will and capabilities. For me those are the biggest issues that need to be overcome in order for us to actually tap into all our resources — as many of our resources as possible to electrify the continent.

Right now we only have about 70 gigawatts capacity for sub-Saharan Africa, and even that’s quite a small amount because South Africa has about 50 gigawatts. So we have about 600 million people without electricity even though we have all these resources.

MR. PHILLIPS: Wow! And now you must have a perspective on that from where you sit in
the national energy company. I mean, you agree with what she said? Anything else you want to add to that?

TSHEGOFATSO NEEUWFAN: Yeah, South Africa actually has 42 gigawatts, but I mean, it’s
significant — quite significant. And National Power Utilities supplies the majority of the power within South Africa and within the region. So the perspective is solar resources are great and we must integrate a whole lot more of them, but also like the utility still has a role to play in that it must be a balancing, balancing utility that brings in other technologies to support renewables.

So the aim, I guess, with the entire thing, we must look at it from an energy mix perspective. The aim is to move towards low carbon growth future, right, but with renewables included because they’re obviously like zero to very low emissions within the system. So renewables come in but they’re intermittent. You’ll have them sometimes, but sometimes not. So how do you support them also in low carbon growth way? And I think this was the work that I was doing within the National Power Utilities to say, what are the strategies that we can put in place to support renewables coming in in a low carbon growth way, and gas was one of the resources that we had identified to support renewables ’cause of its quick ramp up time —

MR. PHILLIPS: Right.

MR. NEEUWFAN: — and it has half the emissions of diesel —

MR. PHILLIPS: That’s been a big story here in the United States.

MR. NEEUWFAN: Yeah.

MR. PHILLIPS: And if you look at our decrease in emissions and our moving off of dependence on foreign oil here in the United States, that’s in large part because of what we brought on board with natural gas, as well as with things like car emissions and other types of investments in solar and things. But looking over your backgrounds, both of you, it strikes me that you’re working on a similar problem when it comes to renewable energy, but you’re focused on the macro, sort of infrastructure behind the meter-type work and that you’re —

MR. NEEUWFAN: In front of the meter.

MR. PHILLIPS: — Or in front of the meter —

MR. NEEUWFAN: Yes.

MR. PHILLIPS: Sort of the guts of the system, and that you’re focused on the consumer side, so how do I actually get solar panels into people’s hands. And so, you know, what I’d like you to do, if you can, is sort of talk about why you chose to go that way versus the other way. You know, let’s try to kind of get you to comment on each other’s because I think that’s — when you think about the equation, they’re both very valuable parts of the system, and you’ve kind of made a choice in each direction.

So we’ll start with you, Adele. As you look at — you’re in with the consumer side. What are some of the biggest challenges you see on the infrastructure side?

MS. BOADZO: So first I think of South Africa, we have one of the highest electrification rates on the continent. It’s about 85 percent. And one of the biggest reasons we haven’t been able to reach 100 percent is inability to get to rural areas, and this is ‘cause we’re using our coal power stations. And I believe that in order for us to get to these rural areas, we need to focus on distributed systems, which would largely use renewable energy systems.

So my focus is bringing renewable energy off-grid systems to rural areas to get us to 100 percent universal electrification.

MR. PHILLIPS: But you’re not waiting for the grid to be extended. You just wanna —

MS. BOADZO: Actually, for me it makes more sense financially to use distributed systems as opposed to waiting for the grid to be extended. There are some cases — well, most cases I found that it’ll be cheaper to actually electrify some areas with off-grid systems instead of waiting for the grid.

MR. PHILLIPS: That’s right. And I’ve heard this argument made in India as well. There’s a huge push for off-grid solar there and, yeah, it is interesting — do you need the grid at all, if the technology can catch up? Yeah.

How about you? As you’ve said and look at the big system at a national level, what are some of the issues you feel like need to be addressed at the consumer level?

MR. NEEUWFAN: At the consumer level I think maybe just sensitizing the consumer to renewable energy.

MR. PHILLIPS: And what’s your argument there? ‘Cause in the United States — at least I arrive at this argument as we have to save the Earth because, you know, I have children, I’d like them to have, you know, a full healthy life. I worry that if we continue on this trajectory that the environment is gonna be affected in a way that’s just, you know, awful. But that argument doesn’t seem to win the day.

MR. NEEUWFAN: No.

MR. PHILLIPS: Sometimes it’s the economic argument, and so then we get into the politics of the whole thing. So what do you think, at least in the South African context, to the extent you can extrapolate to a more regional argument, is the non-environmental economic argument for renewable energy?

MR. NEEUWFAN: I think for starters, I’ll say — I’ll talk about the economics now. For starters, I’ll say like renewable energy technology has still not grown to a level where it can become base load, and base load meaning that it can be on all the time when the consumer needs it. So from a macro perspective, you still need a utility or something that supports renewables to be able to get to 100 percent availability. So that is from a first perspective, and that’s one of the interests of the customer. The customer wants a supply all the time, regardless of where it comes from sometimes, and because of that desire they might subordinate climate change aspects of the case for renewable energy. But what appeals to them, I think, may be changing the narrative for renewable energy. You have to show the customer how renewable energy gets them what they want. So in the off-grid context you say renewable energy gets you what you want because, you know, sure there is a rollout program for electrification, but this thing can give it to you tomorrow and it’ll be online and —

MR. PHILLIPS: So maybe renewable has a better availability —

MR. NEEUWFAN: Yes.

MR. PHILLIPS: — for people that don’t have access to nonrenewable energy right now.

MR. NEEUWFAN: Absolutely. And on a level above that for people who are already electrified, the argument is persuasive if you show them how the cost of conventional supply impacts them. So for instance, coal-generated power obviously has associated health impact, which has associated health care costs. So does — is the user willing to pay for a supply that will ensure that they pay less and their kids are more protected?

MR. PHILLIPS: Right.

MR. NEEUWFAN: Could we pitch that kind of an argument to the mid-tier kind of consumer?

So you need to find those kinds of arguments to pitch to people, because needs in sub-Saharan Africa are different, and people will always tell you, “Oh, you want us to do climate change mitigation, but we’re not really big emitters like America and China and India. Why don’t you talk to those guys to make drastic cuts when we are the little guy and you want us to commit a lot?”

So we need to find nuanced arguments to persuade people to move to renewables and they
need to make sense.

MR. PHILLIPS: Right. Sort of a “both and.” The United States needs to continue the steps it
has taken to reduce its emissions and make that transition, but there are additional arguments to your point about health —

MR. NEEUWFAN: Yes.

MR. PHILLIPS: — availability that really do emphasize the value of renewable energy. Do
you have another argument you’d make on that?

MS. BOADZO: Yeah, just to add on that is South Africans, for example, when we look at the
rural areas, if you say, “I’m bringing you solar energy,” your argument is therefore you don’t have to spend money on candles, you don’t have to spend money on kerosene, which is also better for your health as well. When you go to households the case is, find that you have capital cost — this is going to save you money over time. This is a payback of 24 months and under — and this also means that you are independent from the utility. When the prices go up, you will not be affected by that. So that’s the case they really wanna hear. They wanna hear that they’re going to save money and that they can use their money on other things.

MR. PHILLIPS: Yeah, that’s — I think that those are all very powerful arguments.

MR. NEEUWFAN: Yeah, and there’s a third argument, like, you know, control over price
Inflation.

MS. BOADZO: Yeah.

MR. PHILLIPS: Right. So there’s also availability but also stability.

MR. NEEUWFAN: Stability and then health care and all of these arguments.

MR. PHILLIPS: So this all sounds good sitting here in this hotel room in Washington, right, and we just heard Obama talk for a while about how change is possible and, you know, I wonder, though, when you get a good night’s sleep and you wake up tomorrow and you continue your work a little bit more sober about what’s gonna happen, you know, what is your realistic expectation for the next few years, in both South Africa, but in the region? And what are some of the areas, in particular, you’re going to try to focus on, not necessarily now, but when we check in in five years? What’s gonna be the thing that you think is really taking up a lot of your time?

MR. NEEUWFAN: Yeah. I’ve — Can I go ahead —

MR. PHILLIPS: Yes, please.

MR. NEEUWFAN: I think, I’ve worked for the National Power Utility for a while, and I think over the past month or so I decided to go for the next stretch kind of opportunity. So I’ve decided to start my own enterprise that works on energy services, actually. So the intent with that will be to focus on the customers who are moving to Adele’s space, behind the meter, focus on the customer and give them a better interaction with the electricity supply, give them more control over the cost of their electricity supply, and also introduce them to energy efficiency and its impact on climate change — all of these nice things.

But also, I think there’s an opportunity to export some of the skills that we have in South Africa. So through the YALI experience I’ve met some fellows in other countries, and there are great opportunities to collaborate, and where I can add a bit of my skill to their experience and their skill and their knowledge to my experience, and we can make both a better product that is different from what is being provided at the moment.

And also, like, maybe this is unpopular, but you know, young black people need to get into a space where they think about starting their own enterprises in these spaces. You need more entrepreneurs, more entrepreneur skill — more jobs.

And customers. I think. are also thirsty for alternatives. and we need to understand how willing they are to put their money on those alternatives and what do those alternatives look like, ‘cause the customer of the future wants to interact with the product better. They want to know if they can supply to you while you also supply to them. So concepts like zero net energy come into play, and the region can benefit from the skills exchange and the ideas that we bring.

MR. PHILLIPS: It strikes me — and then I’d certainly, Adele, I wanna hear, you know, the same forecast from you, but it strikes me the parallel — this may be kind of a reach — between political power and the power we’re talking about, which is that the old paradigm was centralized and sort of one-way, a small group of people had the power that they then affected everyone else with. And the future that you’re describing is power supplies that are much more collaborative, flatter, egalitarian, and as a result people are more invested in one another rather than being the recipients of some central place.

MR. NEEUWFAN: Absolutely.

MR. PHILLIPS: When we apply that to the political world, I think that’s the trend that has everyone so excited, certainly filled with maybe more questions than answers, but it seems like a pretty optimistic way to see things, is that more people are going to have more of a role in how power is distributed.

MR. NEEUWFAN: And benefit from it.

MR. PHILLIPS: That’s right. And benefit from it.

So how about you?

MS. BOADZO: So when I think of the big issues that will keep me up when I get back is, for one, awareness on the power of renewable energy projects and solar projects, specifically. So as an entrepreneur I’m still gonna be focusing on rural electrification, but there’s still a lot of work to be done in terms of getting out there, showing people how this works, that it works, and that it’s really going to save them money and save the environment. So loads of work needs to done on that.

And, added to that, on the implementation side, is bringing down the cost of this equipment. So whether I look at the solar kits or I look at off-grid electrification in villages, somehow those costs need to go down. And what we’ve learned in the U.S. is that scale, scale, scale is what really brings the costs down. When you have a state like California who has a target of getting to 50 percent renewables by 2030, solar is a big part of that. So that means you have X amount of solar on the grid, which is definitely going to reduce your costs. So we need to get to that point on the continent. So those are the issues I’ll be focusing on.

MR. NEEUWFAN: Yeah, and seeing also Africa as a market that will also increase that scale,
right, —

MS. BOADZO: Yeah.

MR. NEEUWFAN: — ‘cause we sometimes when we speak about the scale of purchasing of renewable technology, like there’s this focus on America, but America sometimes you see as a saturated market, but where is there most room to have impact, and I think Africa is —

MR. PHILLIPS: Absolutely.

MR. NEEUWFAN: — is the place.

MR. PHILLIPS: I mean, as someone who is very ignorant about some of the economics of this and some of the technical aspects that both of you know so much about, what I’m hearing is that there’s this sort of counterintuitive situation we find ourselves in that is in the normal economic idea the greater the demand, the higher the price. But what you’re saying is as demand and need is realized, that it’ll actually drive down the price because it’s a virtuous cycle. The more solar that’s built out, the more investment goes into making those technologies cheaper and more available. So we’re kind of at the beginning of something that might accelerate, which is really exciting.

So let me conclude here just by saying to everyone listening how they can keep up with you and connect with you. So why don’t we hear from you first, Adele, on where are you on social or is there a website that people can find you at — how can they stay in touch?

MS. BOADZO: So I’m starting my organization called Hope Rises Solar. The website is still under construction, but it will be hoperisessolar.org, so you’ll see that in a couple of weeks’ time.

So my organization is focused on distributing solar lighting equipment and will do this by empowering female solar entrepreneurs. So I have this vision of seeing a whole bunch of women across the continent selling solar equipment, being strong business-wise and technical-wise. So that’s where I am.

MR. PHILLIPS: That’s great. Are you on Twitter or Facebook or anything like that?

MS. BOADZO: I’m on Facebook, just not as an organization, but as Adele Boadzo.

MR. PHILLIPS: OK, so people can look you up. How about you?

MR. NEEUWFAN: Yeah, people can also look me up. I’m on social media. I’m on Facebook as Tshego Neeuwfan. And I’m also on Twitter. I’ve become — I’m tweeting more recently I think through YALI – through the YALI experience I’m tweeting more, and through those platforms I guess I’ll keep publicizing what I’m doing professionally.

The enterprise we’re starting — the naming has not gone through yet — through the process. So I’ll publish that on the social media.

MR. PHILLIPS: OK, so people can look you up individually to stay in touch, but —

MR. NEEUWFAN: Individually to stay in touch, yeah.

MR. PHILLIPS: Well, I just wanna thank both of you for sharing your time with us today and wish you the best of luck in the weeks and months and years ahead.

Hopefully, we’ll see each other again sometime. I’d like to come back through, but until them, take care.

MS. BOADZO: Thank you.

MR. NEEUWFAN: Thank you very much.

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MR. PHILLIPS: Thank you everyone for tuning into another YALI Voices podcast and a huge thanks to Adele and Tshego for taking time to talk with me.

Adele and Tshego are doing exciting work to bring clean, safe energy options to their fellow South Africans.

Each told me that making these strides and achieving success is made a lot easier by being connected with other young African leaders through the YALI Network.

Once again, if you’d like to reach out to Adele you can find her on Twitter @adele_hrs.

To reach Tshego, send him a tweet @tshego_vat_so. You can also visit his website at www.africagw.com

Be sure to come back for more inspiring stories from young African leaders on the YALI Voices podcast.

Join the YALI Network at YALI.state.gov and be part of something bigger.

Our theme music is E Go Happen by Grace Jerry and produced by her friends, the Presidential Precinct.

The YALI Voices podcast is brought to you by the U.S. Department of State and is part of the Young African Leaders Initiative, which is funded by the U.S. government.

Thanks everyone.

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