Home OIL AND ELECTRICITY AFRICA – Cleaning the grid: Electricity generation in Africa

AFRICA – Cleaning the grid: Electricity generation in Africa


The imperative to respond to climate change is clearer than ever. At the same time as our technological horizons expand and emerging economies come online, the need for nations to develop sustainable approaches to energy has become glaring.

The United Nations (UN) 17 Sustainable Development Goals are a road map for rectifying humanity’s errors and achieving the promise of a sustainable future. They are a roadmap to a world without energy or environmental concerns, in which every person has access to the vital resources they need — food, water, financial opportunity — along with education, health, and well-being. Making this a reality will require immense changes in how our society operates. Energy has been described as the “golden thread,” facilitating any possible transition. Power generation allows human development to materialise, connections to be made, and economic growth to flourish — but it is also, presently, a major contributor to climate change.

“Energy is crucial for achieving almost all of the Sustainable Development Goals, from its role in the eradication of poverty through advancements in health, education, water supply and industrialisation, to combating climate change,” the UN explains in a report from then Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon. Significant progress has been made in electricity access around the world over the past few decades. The proportion of the global population with electricity has increased from 73% in 2 000 to close to 90% today.

Yet, 840 million people around the world still live without electricity. Recent global progress in access has largely been driven by developments in Asia, where access to electricity has expanded at more than twice the pace of population growth. Africa on the other hand — in spite of its emergent population — accounts for the majority of those still living without electricity.

The energy picture in Africa

“We need to do more to put the world on track to meet all SDG7 targets. I am particularly concerned by the dramatic lack of access to reliable, modern and sustainable energy in certain parts of the world, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, a region where we need to really concentrate our efforts,” says Dr Fatih Birol, executive director of the International Energy Agency. In sub-Saharan Africa, 580 million people were without access to electricity in 2019. This figure, representing three quarters of the global total of those without access, actually rose slightly in 2020 as a result of the economic shock of the pandemic.

The vast majority of sub-Saharan households, estimated to be around 90%, rely on charcoal for cooking. The figure drops only slightly, to 80%, for urban households. This has serious implications for the environment, contributing to the high carbon footprint of sub-Saharan Africa relative to its total energy output. A country like the Republic of South Africa, a major regional economy, illustrates these characteristics quite clearly. Reliance on coal for electricity in South Africa sits at 90%.

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The consequences for public health are a clear cause for alarm.

Research into the total quantifiable impact on health of electricity production from carbon in South Africa found that there were more than 2 200 attributable deaths. There were also thousands of non-fatal medical conditions attributed, with a total financial cost to the country of $2.37 billion. The recent financial peril of the country’s main energy provider, combined with a recurrence of blackouts and power shortages, make the search for alternative energy even more pressing.

Opportunities for clean power

Drastic changes need to happen in terms of the energy mix in sub-Saharan Africa. Despite the theoretical potential of renewable energy sources, like wind and solar power, this path too is fraught with challenges. For a start, the potential to employ renewables, such as wind and solar, varies by country. Renewables are also, dollar for dollar, not as efficient or affordable as traditional fuels. The emerging nature of sub-Saharan economies means that the added price tag could impede household acceptance and, therefore, cause problems with implementation.

Natural gas, on the other hand, looks to be a more promising avenue for development.

A mix predominantly of methane and other gases, natural gas is the carbon fuel of choice. In the bid to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in Europe, it has even become an essential part of policy. “There’s one thing I have to acknowledge: in some areas of transition, the use of natural gas will probably be necessary to shift from coal to sustainable energy,” said Frans Timmermans, the European Commission’s executive vice-president in charge of the European Green Deal. Crucially, natural gas-powered plants are half as polluting as those powered with coal. This makes the quantities of gas discovered in places like Mozambique highly significant for the future energy mix of sub-Saharan Africa. Moreover, LNG supplies and construction of a receiving infrastructure can solve this issue.

However, clearly this presents an opportunity for other regional economies. If the Republic of South Africa were to seek investment in order to realign its energy infrastructure with natural gas, it could provide many benefits, nationally and regionally. Firstly, this would stabilise what has been a turbulent power grid in South Africa. It would also create economic activity that would nourish the local economy. And finally, it would alleviate what has up to now been a hefty carbon toll on the environment as a result of electricity generation from coal. The ecological benefits would be felt across southern Africa.

Source : Anton Van den Berg


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