This is a guest post by Social Entrepreneur and Public Interest Researcher Bright Simons, inventor of the mPedigree anti-fake drugs system (www.mPedigree.Net). He is also a TED Fellow at IMANI, a think tank in Ghana. In this 3-part series, Simons takes a look at Africa's highly constrained power sector, and makes the case for more alternative energy.
Tonight the lights won't come on in vast stretches of Harare.
Same in Accra. In Ruwa. And in Lilongwe.
Something called “load-shedding” has entered the lexicon of power infrastructure challenges in Africa.
These storms of rolling blackouts move across the borders of the continent like a silent plague – just months ago their epicentre had been in East Africa: Kampala, Dar, and the sprawling suburbs of Nairobi.
Countries that used to export power to neighbours, like Ghana and South Africa, are in dire need of it themselves. In 2008, doom itself appeared to hang over South African industry as the state utility, Eskom, tethered on the edge.
Load shedding, as its spread across Africa, is most acutely felt in urban centers, the engines of recent economic growth, the hubs of new services and recovering industry.
Now that nearly 70% of the continent's urban settlements have been connected to the grid (there are of course outliers, like Rwanda, where more than 80% of households lack a connection to the main grid), conversations about the continent's much belaboured 'energy gap” have tended to focus on rural Africa, where according to conventional estimates 60% of Africans still live, but where electrification remains stuck at a low 23%, improving by only 20% from base in the last decade according to the International Energy Association.
In Ethiopia, a fascinating 99% of all households, according to the IEA burn organic waste rather than use grid power to meet their energy requirements. In Togo and Mozambique it is 90%.
But if anything at all, the load shedding mess suggests that connecting people to the grid is one thing, actual generation of power to feed the grid is another.
Or perhaps both problems are joined at the hip: Africa's sparsely populated rural areas makes grid expansion and conservation expensive, while its income profile and populist politicians, through irrational tariffs and untargeted subsidies, interfere with the expansion of generation capacity. Where installed capacity has managed to keep in rough step with the basic needs of the economy (not the growth needs, mind you), uneven provision of fuel stock and other maintenance supplies, due to a weak energy services and trade infrastructure, has ensured that installed capacity remain underutilised. In Nigeria, for instance, utilisation of installed capacity is only about 50%.
The Green Dream
Why not rely then on something other than the grid? And why not dispense with the need to bring feedstock from afar, and obviate therefore the need for complex logistics in the first place? Why not? Why shouldn't Africa go green?
Wind, solar, and geothermal. If Africa could harness these local and distributed sources of power, via community-level mini-grids or micro-applications at the household level, the continent's rural electrification challenge can be transcended. And where resources are available, there is no reason why renewable energy cannot be generated on a larger, concentrated, scale, for onward sale to mainstream power grids. In this latter context, the point could even be made that renewables got here first, after all hydro-electric was modern, post-colonial, Africa's first foray into centralised energy infrastructure.
The steady shift to fossil fuels, towards thermal plants, had come about because hydro-electric, being dependent on weather patterns, had become increasingly less dependable for the growth needs of many African countries, except in places like Congo DRC and Ethiopia where natural endowments and geopolitical considerations still advise a high emphasis on hydro. Diversifying away from hydro over-dependence had brought in thermal. Now that some see a growing dependence on thermal, and therefore exposure to the volatile markets and logistic complexities of petrochemicals, another call for diversification is bringing attention to renewables, and not just hydro, but also wind, solar and geothermal.
So good for theory. So good for forethought. So good for imagination. But these ideas wouldn't have amounted to much without some hard science and data.
The State of Conventional Wisdom
The vision of a Green Africa successfully transcending the fossil-drenched path cut yesteryear by the West received a boost of credibility from its apparent, positive, agreement with emerging research-based insights from some fairly respectable quarters. Three reports containing some of these insights bear mention here for being both instructive and illustrative.
The first was a 2007 World Bank Report by the organisation's Energy & Mining Sector Board that concluded that:
“Renewable energy is more economical than conventional generation for off-grid (less than 5 kW) applications. Several RE technologies – wind, mini-hydro and biomass-electric – can deliver the lowest levelized generation costs for off-grid electrification, assuming availability of the renewable resource.”
An assertion largely corroborated by a 2011 study authored by SandorSzabo and Thomas Huld, both researchers at the European Commission, and others.
The second report on the list was prepared by Christian Aid, the international NGO. Its major conclusions exemplify the “carbon finance” approach:
“Africa will need reliable and substantial financing to realise its potential and to deliver low-carbon growth. It is estimated that the continent will need about 20 billion US dollars per year to deliver its basic energy needs to all its people by 2030, and US$30-35bn per year to deliver a higher level of low-carbon development.”
The last in these series of illustrations can be culled from a report by the commercial research organisation, Frost & Sullivan. A highlight of the report is the assertion that:
“The Sub-Saharan African renewable energy market is expected to triple in investment value between 2010 and 2015, driven by a significant need for energy diversification and energy security of supply. This is resulting in increased awareness of the important role RE projects have in energy security and rural electrification.”
Elsewhere in the report Frost & Sullivan predicted investment in renewable power to grow from $3.6 billion in 2010 to $57 billion in 2020 on the back of massive foreign direct investment (FDI).
It should be clear by now that the 3 archetypal reports are facets of the same African green dream narrative. Summed up, the narrative consists of three claims: Africa has vast renewable energy resources, the falling costs of renewables will ensure that investments would and must follow to harness their incredible potential, and there is a developmental, even moral, case to be made for low-carbon growth premised on investments in renewable power.
Such a striking narrative clearly deserves deeper probing, for much is at stake.
From time to time, prominent African intellectuals, entrepreneurs, builders and thinkers initiate some of the key conversations we should be having on The Africa Chronicles. Follow me on Twitter @EmperorDIV