Sub-Saharan Africa could still be without electricity in 2030, if the continent does not take advantage of its wealth of untapped, domestic renewable energy, said a United Nations report released today. Government policies that facilitate private sector investment in energy markets are crucial to reducing poverty and encouraging sustainable development.

The UN report was produced by the UN Environment Programme in Nairobi to mark the African launch of the International Year of Sustainable Energy for All, which outlines how current obstacles to the scaling-up of sustainable energy solutions in Africa, such as the cost of electricity generation or difficult grid access, can be tackled.

The UN reports that in order to meet the continent’s growing energy demands, the power sector in Africa needs to install an estimated 7,000MW of new generation capacity each year.

Earlier this month, GeoModel Solar released solar maps showing the direct solar radiation across Africa. The European Commission’s Joint Research centre published a report this month analyzing the potential for renewable energy sources in Africa, noting that 1.4 billion people – 20% of the world’s population – has no access to any form of electricity. Many companies have already taken advantage of Africa’s potential. In Tunisia, Desertec Foundation and Nur Energie have launched a 2GW solar project. Korean investors are also eyeing up Ghana. Last month, Powerway announced it was planning to invest over US$1 million in South Africa. Groups like Eight19 and SunnyMoney – a division of SolarAid – have launched a “KickStart Sustainable Energy Fund” that aims to provide affordable solar lighting to rural off-grid communities in East Africa.

The study gives examples of how policy incentives can help reduce the higher costs associated with electricity generation from renewable sources and improve the competitiveness of investments in the sector, compared to traditional energy sources.

In Kenya, the government feed-in tariff offers production incentives for an estimated additional energy generation capacity of 1300MW. The report also praises Uganda’s dedicated renewable energy policy for developing an institutional infrastructure for management of the Clean Development Mechanism that has successfully led to a spike in renewable energy activity.

“Accelerating and scaling-up sustainable energy for all will be key to realizing a transition to a low carbon, resource efficient ‘inclusive’ Green Economy,” said Achim Steiner, the UNEP executive director. Yet the continent has abundant renewable resources that, with the right kind of public policies in place, can unlock a new development future and light up the lives and the livelihoods of millions of people.”