First, the bad news. Although Africa has vast fossil and renewable energy sources, only twenty percent of its population has direct access to electricity and in some rural areas, four out of five people are completely without power.
According to the UN, over 600 million Africans currently do not have access to electric power. A depressing 70 percent of Sub-Saharan Africa's population is living without access to clean and safe energy for their basic needs such as cooking, lighting and heating, making energy poverty among the most urgent issues facing Africa. Worldwide, more than 1.4 billion people worldwide have no access to electricity, and 1 billion more only have intermittent access.
Over 2.5 billion people, almost half of humanity, rely on traditional biomass - wood, coal, charcoal, or animal waste to cook their meals and heat their homes, exposing themselves and their families to smoke and fumes that damage their health and kill nearly two million people a year. More than 95 percent of these people are either in sub-Saharan Africa or developing Asia.
Related: Africa Economic Structure
The good news?
According to the Managing Director of Nigeria's Bank of Industry (BOI), Evelyn Oputu, total investments in renewable energy in Africa rose from $750 million in 2004 to $3.6 billion in 2011. To put this in a global context, worldwide investment in renewable energy has risen from $33 billion in 2004 to $211 billion in 2011.
And the future?
According to a report issued in August 2011 by Frost & Sullivan entitled "Mega Trends in Africa: A Bright Vision For The Growing Continent," investment in renewable power in Africa is set to grow from the 2011 total of $3.6 billion in 2010 to $57 billion by 2020, a staggering 1,583 percent increase in nine short years. According to the document, "The key growth sectors will be wind power, solar power, geothermal power and foreign direct investment (FDI) into energy and power infrastructure."
The reason for the spectacular projections? Africa's combination of a massive unmet demand, including remote communities, allied to an abundance of renewable power potential in the form of solar, wind and geothermal potential. To give but one example, only seven percent of Africa's hydropower capacity has been developed up to now.
Modest starts in renewable energy have already begun across the continent. Wind power projects in Africa are planned or under way in Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya, Morocco, Nigeria, Tunisia, and Tanzania - including Kenya's 0.3 gigawatt Lake Turkana project and 0.7 gigawatt of capacity under construction in Morocco, while Cameroon, Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda all have existing biomass power capacity or plans for future development.
Solar? South Africa has its planned solar park in Upington, intended to contribute 5,000 megawatts to the national electrical grid, while North Africa's Desertec is the largest solar power project ever conceived, designed at a potential cost of $500 billion to provide a significant portion of the electricity needs of participating countries in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region and up to 15 per cent of Europe's electricity needs by 2050.
Africa's ambitions have the support of the United Nations, where in 2010 the General Assembly unanimously endorsed a resolution designating 2012 as "The International Year of Sustainable Energy for All." UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has set three inter-linked objectives to support the goal of achieving "Sustainable Energy for All" by 2030, which are ensuring universal access to modern energy services, doubling the rate of improvement in energy efficiency and doubling the share of renewable energy in the global energy mix.
The UN Sustainable Energy for All incorporates a number of initiatives focusing on Africa, including World Bank Group's Lighting Africa, the Paris-Nairobi Climate Initiative, the Africa-European Union Energy Partnership, and the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, as well as the EU's decision to make access to sustainable energy a development priority through its "Agenda for Change." A number of countries, including South Africa, are also leading the way with national initiatives.
But these initiatives are relatively recent and need financial support to prosper. It was only in September 2010 that African and European leaders launched the Africa-EU Renewable Energy Cooperation Program (RECP) at the First High-Level Meeting of the Africa-EU Energy Partnership (AEEP) in Vienna.
AEEP's agenda is nothing if not ambitious, as its targets on renewable energy to be reached by 2020 include 10,000 megawatts of hydropower facilities, 5,000 megawatts of wind power capacity, 500 megawatts of solar energy capacity and tripling the capacity of other renewables, such as geothermal, and modern biomass.
Related: The Renewable Energy Debate