Energising sustainable development. Concepts and projects

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Energy security in sub-Saharan Africa requires a two-pronged approach addressing investments and capacity development. Years of insufficient support have rendered power supply notoriously inefficient in the region. The
authors argue that there is much scope both for renewables and for private sector initiative.

On the 4th November 2006, trouble with power transmission in Northern Germany left people as far afield as Southern Spain and Italy in the dark for about an hour. How could something like this happen in Europe? So far, so bad: somebody must have goofed. But in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA), even consumers in the big cities count themselves lucky to get just a few hours of electricity a day, while blackouts tend to be frequent and prolonged.  Lack of appropriate action – not once, but over decades – has created monumental shortcomings.  There is a strong link between a reliable, cost-effective energy supply and development. For instance, economic development is seriously constrained if there is no dependable energy supply. The World Bank notes with concern that levels of electrification in SSA are much lower than those in other regions with similar income levels. This is due to the absence of investment programmes in the past. In Ethiopia, bottom of the scale in terms of electrification levels, a mere three percent of households are electrified. And across the entire region, more than 80 percent of the population rely on biomass energy, such as wood, charcoal, agricultural residues or dung.  The low electrification and the high biomass energy rate is not only a development and energy challenge, but has tremendous health implications as well. The World Health Organization estimates that about 1.5 million people die each year from indoor air pollution caused by cooking with traditional biomass energy, with the proportion heaviest in SSA – a state of affairs that politicians and energy-planners ought to be far more aware of. Moreover, the lack of efficient energy sources also impacts health systems in the region. In Kenya, for example, only about five percent of dispensaries have access to electricity, while power is supplied to 50 percent of the health centres. Schools in the region are similarly affected, with children’s education being additionally impaired by low-quality lighting in poor households.

Energy inefficiency – an economic constraint Of course, on top of the social implications of an insufficient, unreliable and costly power supply, there are massive constraints to productivity and competitiveness.  In Kenya, an estimated eight percent of power sales is lost to power outages. Is this down to insufficient investments or to a lack of the necessary know-how to run the system?

While economic growth rates in SSA have averaged at around four percent in recent years, current levels of increase in power supply are less than 1,000 megawatts a year, with 4,000 required to keep up the economic growth rate. To put things into perspective, China is constructing 1,000 megawatts at least every two weeks. Projections of energy access figures for the region present a gloomy picture. Already, twice as many households are formed each year as those getting new power connections. Are large-scale investments in power systems the best remedy to improve the energy situation for the majority of the people?  True, power for economic growth is required in bulk quantities. And here, major improvements are indeed on the horizon. International donors are sending clear signals that after years of very little interest in Africa’s infrastructure, energy is back on the international development finance agenda for the continent.  The World Bank has launched a related Action Plan for Energy in SSA, and the EU has committed itself to substantially increase spending on infrastructure there.

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