Building a resilient system

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Courtesy of Energy Institute (EI)

Africa is the second largest continent in the world, with the majority of its people surviving every day with little or no access to electricity – 50% of the 1.2bn people lacking access to electricity globally are in Africa, earning less than $2/d and living in remote locations where conventional grid extension makes little economic sense. Tackling energy poverty is the key to ensuring Africa’s economic development, writes Hafiz Bello MSc, BSc Doctoral Researcher – Centre for Environmental Policy, Imperial College London, on behalf of the EI Nigeria branch.

Bridging Africa’s electricity gap will require huge technological, human and financial outlay to achieve the universally accepted targets of 100% modern access to Africans by 2030. Many African countries currently lack the capacity to deploy the use of large scale coal or gas power plants.With a few exceptions, such as Nigeria, where gas is produced as a by-product of its oil production, the primary method of production is renewables. However, in countries where these projects exist, such as large-scale hydropower production in EastAfrica and the use of offshore hydrocarbons and coal in South Africa, the financial implication of carrying out these projects means their execution is subject to the dictates of the international companies who can generate the funds which the countries cannot.

In recent times, support for electrifying the continent on a large scale has been gaining momentum. A notable initiative is the USAID Power Africa program and the African Electrification Initiative of the World Bank which aims to support and develop strategies to increase electricity access in sub-Saharan Africa. USAID announced in December 2013 that the US will invest $7bn into its Power Africa programme, an initiative aiming to double sub-Saharan Africa’s access to electricity. The African Electrification Initiative currently has over 500 projects across all African countries, mainly in sub-Saharan Africa, with the aim of mitigating barriers and promoting solutions to electrification access through the provision of proven, practical information.

What is of importance, however, is the fact that with current electrification efforts, only 50% of the currently unserved will be reached by 2030. This is because electricity infrastructure is polarised along urban and rural lines. On average, 60% of the urban centres in Africa are connected to the grid while this might be as low as 14% (excluding North Africa) in rural areas. The transmission networks simply do not have the capacity to take on increased generation (Stratfor Global Intelligence 2013). Some countries, particularly in West Africa, have thousands of megawatts in installed generation but they cannot be connected to the transmission grid. The underlining question is, therefore, will Africa be able to build up the infrastructure needed to distribute the electricity generated?

There is also the overhanging threat from climate change which shows that the world is well on the path of exceeding the 4ºC surface temperature if we continue with ‘business as usual’ in the way energy is deployed globally. Electricity provision is responsible for 60% of energy requirements today and extending it to 800mn people over the next decade simply fast-tracks the 4ºC benchmark if conventional means are employed. The environmental, technological and social ‘trilemma’ of extending access has been gaining considerable momentum over the years, alternative environmentally-friendly technologies are getting cheaper and there has been relative success across the continent.

The Achilles heel thwarting progress so far has been how to finance the projects. The financial shortcomings of governments have traditionally been picked up by international donor agencies and charities, but research has shown that to achieve targets, the continent needs an annual investment of $7bn/y to provide 250 kWh per household on average. For this kind of recurrent expenditure to be achieved, the debate has to move beyond charitable pilot projects to mainstream private finance. The sustained growth of the envisioned energy system needed to drive economic development on the continent can therefore be ensured through financial resilience.

However, if megaprojects continue the ‘business as usual’ approach of geographically separating production centres from demand centres, the aim of providing electricity access for all will remain in the distant future. Until the consumption sectors that require the proposed amount of electricity are comprehensively understood and developed, the inadequate power supply in Africa will be a severe limitation to new business development and expansion.

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