Africa enters gigawatt-scale project era

Africa has enviable wind resources but operational wind farms currently average just 108.4MW each. However, gigawatt-scale wind projects are on the way as African leaders seek to boost inward investment.


October 9, 2023

  • African leaders have called for more investment ahead of COP28
  • Africa has just 9GW of operational wind capacity, GWEC reports
  • However, electrification and green fuels could lead to steep rises

How can investors in the Global North direct more funds towards the Global South? This will be an important talking point at the United Nations COP28 climate change conference in Dubai next month. But leaders in Africa aren’t waiting that long.

Last month, leaders at the three-day Africa Climate Summit in Kenya’s capital city Nairobi signed the Nairobi Declaration. They are calling for a global carbon tax to force leading polluters to invest more in helping poorer countries adapt to climate change. Countries in Africa are among the most vulnerable to climate change, but the continent only receives 12% of the £240bn that it needs annually to adapt.

This paucity of investment is a trend we have seen in the wind industry too.

Africa has the potential for over 33,000GW of wind farms, according to the Global Wind Energy Council, alongside its enviable solar, hydro and geothermal resources. But the continent is currently realising less than 0.0003% of that potential, with GWEC reporting there is just 9GW of operational wind capacity in Africa split between 83 utility-scale wind farms. The average headline capacity of each is 108.4MW.

That isn’t a completely fair comparison. Technical potential of 33,000GW assumes the impossible scenario of wind turbines being put on every site in Africa where it is conceivable for them to be put. It is statistically impressive, but unrealistic. Even so, 9GW of installed onshore wind in a continent the size of Africa is a poor return, and shows the difficulty the continent has faced in securing investment in wind energy.

But there is evidence that this is changing. Africa is on the cusp of entering an era of gigawatt-scale wind farms, driven by twin goals of electrification and green hydrogen production. The continent could yet achieve the status that its potential deserves.

Rise of 1GW-plus projects

Kenya is one African country that is set to see gigawatt-scale wind farms in the next five years. This month, Kenyan firm KenGen announced that it is developing a 1GW project in Marsabit county. This would be three times bigger than the current largest wind farm in Kenya – the 310MW Lake Turkana – and nearly twice as big as the two largest wind farms in Africa: Egypt’s 580MW Gabal Al-Zait and 545MW Zafarana.

Yet even 1GW could look puny next to some of the giant onshore projects in Africa.

According to GWEC, nine of the ten largest wind projects proposed in the continent are in North Africa, including the 10GW Masdar Sohag project in Egypt; the 5GW Upper Plateaus scheme in Algeria; and the 5GW Total Eren-Guelmim-Oued Noun development in Algeria. Six of the ten largest projects are in Egypt, which may be a knock-on effect of the fact that COP27 in 2022 was held in Sharm El-Sheikh.

It also reported that five of the ten largest wind projects in Africa are linked to green hydrogen production, including a 4.6GW Fortescue scheme, a 4.5GW Globeleq wind-to-hydrogen project, and a 2.8GW ReNew Power scheme, all in Egypt. The only project in the top ten outside North Africa is a 2.5GW wind-to-hydrogen project in Namibia; and a similar scheme by Hyphen Hydrogen in Nambia, totalling 3GW of green hydrogen production, is set to be powered by wind and solar.

It is all very well developers coming out with giant development plans, but the true test of whether they can help drive investment into the Global South is whether they can achieve financial close. Even so, it is positive that these projects are emerging. In total, GWEC reports that 140 wind projects totalling 86GW are in the pipeline.

Infrastructure investment

The International Renewable Energy Agency has reported that the growth of wind in the last decade has been driven by the need for increased electrification, particularly in under-served regions, and to help countries achieve their climate goals.

It also reported that wind has been an attractive way for African countries to stabilise their grids, particularly by balancing fluctuating production from solar farms; and to help countries diversify their energy mix, particularly away from fossil fuels.

But IRENA said the drivers for investment in wind farms in Africa will change as we head towards 2030. It said new wind farms were important to help Africa establish itself as a global hub for green hydrogen production, and to support growth in the electric vehicle and e-mobility sector. In addition, it forecast a spike of investment in wind farm repowering projects between 2034 and 2038 as the first generation of African wind farms reach the end of their operational life cycle. This will enable developers and investors to use their sites more effectively with larger turbines.

Increasingly, investors will need to look at the African wind markets in five diverse areas, as opposed to three main areas at present: North Africa, Southern Africa, and the middle of the continent. The technical potential for wind is largest in North Africa (18,822GW) and Western Africa (9,144GW), with Central Africa (2,651GW), Eastern Africa (2,133GW) and Southern Africa (891GW) far behind.

COP28 provides a major opportunity for Africa’s leaders to further their case.

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