In an exclusive interview, Joe Anis, President and Chief Executive Officer for Europe, Middle East and Africa (EMEA) for GE Gas Power, shares his thoughts about Africa’s energy transition, the need for decarbonisation, and the solutions that will help achieve this.
Africa is endowed with significant energy resources, including fossil fuels and renewable sources; however, the continent still requires much-needed energy access to facilitate economic growth through industrialisation. The energy transition remains the greatest uncertainty for the power sector today – the need to simultaneously balance affordability, reliability, and sustainability.
ESI: Joe, you have been with GE for more than 25 years and made it your mission to innovate and collaborate with customers to build the energy ecosystem of the future with advanced, sustainable, and efficient power generation, power plant services, digitisation, and local capability building. With such vast experience and an admirable goal, you are well-placed to talk about the energy transition.
Let’s start by looking at Africa’s reliance on fossil fuels, which could hinder decarbonisation and climate goals. Is it viable for African countries to decommission coal-fired power plants as they reach the end of life and not commission new plants? What about converting existing facilities or installing emissions control systems?
JA: First, let me start by saying that Africa and developing countries in general are embracing innovation that will guarantee faster solutions to energy challenges and increased energy access for their populations. Increased demand, increased flexible power generation capacity, addressing carbon emissions and climate change concerns as well as the need to connect more people will continue to drive decisions in the energy mix.
While the renewables market continues to grow, the forecast by the International Energy Agency is that, by 2050, gas is expected to reach around 18% to 20% of this mix. This means gas will play a critical role in the energy transition by complementing the renewables growth and supporting grid reliability. South Africa, for example, is predominantly coal powered and a coal to renewables transition will see a 45% maximum reduction in carbon dioxide (CO2); however, a coal to gas transition can achieve 60% in CO2 reduction if a high efficiency gas turbine is used, such as GE’s HA gas turbine. If this is used in combination with gas and renewables, a 78% reduction in CO2 can be achieved, bringing the country closer to its goal of net neutrality by 2050.
With a rapidly growing population and economy, converting coal plants to gas on one hand in relevant countries like South Africa with GE’s gas turbines, and adding more high efficiency gas power on the grid in critical countries like Nigeria, will enable Africa to meet its demand for energy while moving toward zero carbon.
In addition, switching turbines from natural gas to hydrogen, and introducing carbon capture solutions (CCUS), can lead to lower or near-zero carbon emissions. Today GE’s 9HA gas turbine portfolio has the capability to burn up to 50% by volume of hydrogen when blended with natural gas; there is ongoing work to make it capable of 100% hydrogen by 2030. This technology offers great potential to combat climate change.
ESI: GE is exploring various scenarios to address environmentally friendly baseload needs, such as gas, carbon capture and hybrid solutions. What makes these technologies strong enough to support African countries’ industrialisation efforts?
JA: There is a lot of work to be done, but the good news is that these solutions are available today to enable a reduction in carbon intensity. Based on our extensive analysis and experience across the breadth of the global power industry, GE believes that the accelerated and strategic deployment of renewables and gas power can change the near-term trajectory of climate change, enabling substantive reductions in emissions quickly. More carbon reduction is achieved when gas power and renewables are deployed together compared with deploying only gas or renewables, while in parallel continuing to advance the technologies for near zero-carbon power generation.
There are two ways to systematically approach the task of turning high-efficiency gas generation into a zero or near zero-carbon resource: pre-and post-combustion. Today, hydrogen can be blended with natural gas to power new and existing GE gas turbines, paving the way for decarbonisation for those assets already in the field or those to be installed. On post-combustion, Carbon Capture, Utilisation, and Storage (CCUS) is one of those solutions that will play a crucial role across multiple sectors on the journey to lower carbon.
ESI: Let’s look at facilitating the energy transition. South Africa’s $8.5 billion energy transition deal, signed at COP26, made headline news in this respect. Over a three-to-five-year period, the deal will be made up of financial instruments, including government grants, concessional loans and “risk-sharing instruments” designed to mobilise the private sector.
However, there are concerns about how the funds will be allocated and how these will facilitate a Just Energy Transition (JET) as jobs and communities are at risk. In practice, what are the potential dangers and opportunities?
JA: The Just Energy Transition will require cooperation and coordination across governments and the private sector, with the necessary investment, careful planning and efficient supply chains.
Planning for sustainability in the power sector is one of three corners in the Energy Trilemma: the need to balance affordable energy, maintain reliable power supply, and improve sustainability. For the power sector to quickly make meaningful and long-lasting reductions in CO2 emissions, no single fuel will be effective alone. The most effective way to ensure power system reliability and energy security are through a mix of generation sources.
The solution requires a multi-pronged approach with renewables and natural gas power at its core. In addition, policies should incentivise reductions in power sector carbon intensity with an emphasis on both near-term actions that drive the most significant reductions sooner and a long-term vision of ambitious carbon reductions.
Each country, including South Africa, is at a different point in its reduction of carbon emissions journey and will prioritise the elements of the trilemma differently. Still, the most effective way is a mix of generation resources that complement one another.
ESI: Apart from South Africa securing the COP26 deal, do you believe Africa has been struggling to secure its fair share of climate finance to allow for a gradual and equitable adaption to and mitigation of climate change impacts?
JA: It’s a global issue, and for the world to avoid the negative impacts that accompany climate change, it must become a global priority for all sectors to reduce CO2 emissions.
Take a country like Nigeria where about 200 million people have just about 5GW of power available on the grid, and the use of inefficient diesel generators for private, commercial, and industrial needs is prolific. Strengthening the grid, improving grid access, and increasing efficient gas and renewable power generation is the most effective way to decarbonise Nigeria’s power sector. Therefore, a grid improvement project in Nigeria correlates to these diesel generators being replaced by more efficient power from the grid and ultimately decarbonising the country’s energy sector.
Going beyond the power sector, countries should establish impactful Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) under the Paris Agreement that incentivise the reduction of carbon emissions. Furthermore, they should foster the creation of new market structures that properly value decarbonised assets while providing stability and business certainty for decision-makers.
ESI: What opportunities do you see in the rest of Africa to use green funding to invest in the latest technologies?
JA: There are significant opportunities but at the least, increased funding in Research and Development and incentive mechanisms to continue the cost decline and performance improvements for technologies that support decarbonisation, including renewable energy. In addition, converting simple cycle gas plants to combined cycle, switching liquid fuel to gas power along with this focus, and accelerating cost-effective CCUS, hydrogen, small modular reactors, and other potential low or zero-carbon technologies for dependable capacity to complement renewables in countries where gas is available and energy access is still a challenge. These, as well as investments in high efficiency gas turbines, all offer significant opportunities.
ESI: How do you foresee Africa’s energy landscape supporting industrialisation along with reducing carbon emissions?
JA: Electricity generation demand in Africa is expected to increase due to a growing population and the desire to manufacture and industrialise in the region. Against this backdrop, adding power generation capacity and shifting generation to more renewables and gas power will help ensure that the region reduces CO2 emissions while increasing opportunities for industrialisation.
There are many countries in the region where gas power can be a crucial enabler to further renewables penetration, specifically in areas with high current gas capacity and/or substantial dependence on coal. In those regions, gas power can serve as a backbone for greater renewables penetration and accelerating the retirement of coal assets – both of which will have a significant positive impact on overall emissions.
ESI: A new buzzword has attached itself to the conversation around the global energy transition; that being ‘hydrogen’. It is touted as the fuel of the future. So, let’s explore this fuel in relation to gas turbines to understand its role and the opportunities for African countries.
What are the biggest challenges in deploying hydrogen for power generation?
JA: GE is a world leader in gas turbine fuel flexibility, including more than 100 gas turbines that have or continue to operate on fuels that contain hydrogen. This fleet has accumulated more than eight million operating hours and produced more than 530 Terawatt-hours of electricity. This experience gives GE a unique perspective on the opportunity and challenges of using hydrogen as a gas turbine fuel.
The challenge is in transporting and storing hydrogen, which requires special considerations due to differences in the combustion properties of hydrogen. It is expected that future cost and technology breakthroughs will make hydrogen competitive as a zero-carbon dispatchable fuel source to complement renewables.
GE is continuing to advance the capability of its gas turbine fleet to burn hydrogen through internally funded R&D programmes along with government-funded programmes.
ESI: How is GE adapting its digital and grid solutions portfolio to prepare for hydrogen-fuelled power generation?
JA: Industrial companies that need to measure, monitor, and control their carbon emissions can use digital solutions to collect and analyse data. Software solutions can then recommend operating parameters to lower emissions and help meet targets – and, further down the line, identify opportunities for additional emission reductions.
AI and digital solutions can support performance improvements in complex emerging technologies like CCUS, helping to lower emissions in energy-intensive sectors such as mining, aluminium smelting and steel manufacturing, while significantly reducing emissions altogether from gas-fired power plants.
The production of hydrogen is similarly complex, with an interconnected transportation, storage and distribution chain that stands to benefit significantly from digital solutions helping to streamline processes, unlock new efficiencies and reduce costs.
The electrical grid is set to become another major beneficiary of AI and digitalisation. With the demand for variable renewable power and distributed energy generation growing steadily – alongside the increased electrification of transportation, manufacturing and other sectors – tomorrow’s grid will need to be smart, agile and even more robust to ensure stability and security for Africa’s energy-dependent populations. Transmission and distribution solutions that build greater control, awareness and insight capabilities into their networks will make it possible to achieve higher levels of reliability, availability and resilience. As a result, they’ll enjoy an increased competitive advantage throughout the energy transition.
ESI: It has been a pleasure speaking with you on solutions to advancing Africa’s energy transition, which can only be achieved by all stakeholders working together. What you have shared shows that GE is a ready and able partner to meet Africa’s energy needs.
About Joe Anis
Joe is the President and CEO of GE Gas Power’s Europe, Middle East & Africa (EMEA) region, with more than 25 years of commercial, operations and leadership experience.
Under Joe’s leadership, GE Gas Power is working alongside customers in EMEA to lead the energy transition and decarbonise the power sector while delivering dependable, reliable and affordable power to the planet’s biggest economies and its most remote communities. ESI