In the dark: Africa’s energy shortfall

| January 4, 2016 | 0 Comments
Only 25 percent of sub-Saharan Africans and even fewer rural dwellers have regular access to electric power.

Only 25 percent of sub-Saharan Africans and even fewer rural dwellers have regular access to electric power.

Pitch blackness is Africa at night. From the space station, from satellites, from high-flying aircraft, even on Google projections, compared to the rest of the globe, much of sub-Saharan Africa is dark from sunset — devoid of those cumulated glowing pinpoints that illuminate the other continents. Students in much of sub-Saharan Africa study using kerosene lamps, the glow from a fire, flashlights or, nowadays, the sparkle of their hard-to-charge cellphones. Electrical power is expensive, but, most of all, it is shockingly scarce, thus seriously inhibiting the development of nearly all of sub-Saharan Africa — hampering mining and manufacturing, and making the enjoyment of modern life as we know it that much more difficult.
Today South Africa provides access to electricity to 75 percent of its people and Nigeria to 47 percent. But Ethiopia and Kenya can offer power only to 15 percent of their inhabitants, Mozambique 12 percent, and Rwanda five percent. Much lower figures in those same countries (and many others) apply to citizens living outside of cities.

Max power: One light bulb
Only 25 percent of sub-Saharan Africans and even fewer rural dwellers have regular access to electric power. (About 83 percent of its people therefore still rely on solid biomass energy sources for cooking and winter heating.) According to the World Bank, African power consumption, at 124 kilowatt hours (kwh) per capita per year and falling, is only a 10th of that found elsewhere in the developing world, barely enough to power one 100-watt lightbulb per person for three hours a day. What’s more, only 40 percent of sub-Saharan Africa will be able to provide power to all its citizens by 2050, long after Asia and Latin America will have fully served their inhabitants with electricity.
Spain’s generating capacity could power all of the 49 nations of sub-Saharan Africa. A mid-sized Canadian city, say Kitchener-Waterloo, can today supply enough electricity to power Nigeria. Given such major weaknesses in power availability in sub-Saharan Africa, it is no wonder that surging industrial and consumer demand is met in many African countries by scarcity and long pauses.
However much electricity large, modern and successful South Africa uses each year, it is far less than its citizens and its mines and corporations demand. South Africa experiences frequent outages. Nearby countries, where electrical power is much less available, have even less electricity to power what industry they might have, and to satisfy citizens. Mozambique, with a big aluminum smelter, subsists on only hundreds of kilowatt hours per year. Rwanda and Ethiopia use even less. Such low yearly per-capita consumption numbers are an indication of how far much of sub-Saharan Africa must grow in terms of energy generation before it can provide the kinds of uplifted social standards that are common elsewhere across the globe.
On a per-capita basis, sub-Saharan Africa relies on less than a third of the electricity available to South Asians. (Long ago, in 1980, the two regions had equal power resources.) Sub-Saharan Africans enjoy 90 percent less power availability than South Americans. A cause of this disparity between continents is that installed capacity for electricity in sub-Saharan Africa (especially in South Africa and Nigeria, among its wealthiest countries) has increased over the last half century much more slowly than it has in the rest of the world. In fact, generating capacities have trailed economic and demographic growth rates by about two percent a year. As Nigeria, Tanzania, the Democratic Republic of Congo and many other African countries experience enormous population booms throughout the rest of this century, so they will increasingly have too little power to serve their new peoples, urban and rural, unless drastic improvements are made quickly.
Without the ready availability of inexpensive electrical power (Africa’s is costly), industrialization is almost impossible. So are many agro-processing alternatives, enlarged schooling facilities, improved earnings from tourism, the operation of call centres and other overseas back-office arrangements, steady and secure policing possibilities and significant educational and medical progress. Our ancestors made do without so great a dependence on electrical energy, but to advance in the modern world, Africa needs regular access to power. Flipping a light switch or being able to count on fuel for stoves and refrigerators is fundamental.
Investors want reliable generating capacity. Industry demands steady sources of electricity beyond its own generators. Hospitals crave reliable sources of power. Households seek the same. But in many countries of sub-Saharan Africa, “load-shedding,” a euphemism for engineered blackouts, is more the norm. Zimbabwe, run by long-time authoritarian President Robert Mugabe, now provides only about six hours of power a day to residents and businesses in Harare, the capital.

The hope of hydro
Fortunately, there is hope on the hitherto dark horizon. In very recent years, Mozambique has begun to exploit large deposits of coal and Kenya, Namibia, Tanzania and Mozambique (among others) have found large supplies of natural gas off their coasts. Ethiopia thinks it might have gas under the Ogaden Desert. Rwanda is drilling under Lake Kivu for methane to supply generating facilities. Kenya is harnessing geothermal vents along the Great Rift Valley. All of these fossil fuel and other energy sources can power new generating plants.
But, providing that climate change perturbations and El Niño influences do not devastate rainfall patterns over Africa too dramatically, hydropower is much more likely to permit sub-Saharan Africa to light up its nights and drive its industries sometime after about 2020. Dams on the Congo, Nile and Zambezi rivers already supply what they can to neighbouring countries, but this year, turbines at the mighty Kariba Dam on the Zambezi turn less often because of water shortages, thus affecting Zambians and Zimbabweans. Ghanaians long ago learned not to rely on power from the water-starved Volta Dam.
A new generation of Chinese-constructed dams is soon expected, however, to provide abundant generated electricity to relieve Africans of their light-starved state. Given the huge numbers of people being born and about to be born through the sub-continent, only such new sources of power will enable sub-Saharan Africans to advance toward the global state of relative abundance. The largest of all the new facilities is the Grand Renaissance Dam, athwart the Blue Nile River as it rushes out of Ethiopia’s towering highlands toward Sudan, Egypt and the Mediterranean Sea. It is meant to generate a princely 6,000 megawatts, more than double the output of the Aswan Dam in Egypt and about one-fourth the output of the Three Gorges Dam across the Yangtze River in China. Ethiopia will be able to export power from its dam north to Cairo and south, once electrical grid connections are established, to Cape Town.
Downstream, Sudan is building its own new dams, supplementing the output of existing installations along the cataracts of the Nile River. The biggest, at Merowe, will deliver 1,250 megawatts. Much farther south, the Democratic Republic of Congo is contemplating enlarging the existing Inga Dam, which already generates (in good water times) about 1,175 megawatts a year from waters of the mighty Congo River. There are new dams on the Kafue and Zambezi rivers and dozens more on smaller rivers in such places as Gabon and Uganda. These are but a sample of the 300 or so projects under way to provide hydropower for Africans.
Despite abundant sunshine (possibly as much as 300 days of available sun each year), there are very few large-scale solar facilities, as yet, in Africa. The largest one to date is in western South Africa, but its utility is hindered by the lack of available transmission lines to South Africa’s cities. Many individual businesses, game parks and residences now rely on solar power, and innovative entrepreneurs, local and foreign, have introduced individual solar packs and small lights to students and others in rural Africa. A young entrepreneur in Kenya has distributed customized solar panels to the Maasai and other indigenous peoples who hitherto have been compelled to live off (and far away from) the grid. Solar-driven charging stations for cellphones, an essential, are also appearing in many villages. But, so far, solar has not been a major player in the struggle to light up the sub-continent.

Electric power is corruption power
Nor is wind power much of a contributor to available generating capacity. South Africa, has a medium-sized western experimental facility functioning well, but the shortage of transmission lines means such power cannot be used fully. Kenya and the Gambia are also experimenting with harvesting energy from wind.
The ultimate answer to energy sufficiency and efficiency in Africa is better planning, better management and healthy reinvestment in new equipment. Properly maintaining existing and newly constructed dams and new or older thermal stations should be a major concern. But, the sustainable answer to ameliorating Africa’s energy shortfalls is good governance ­— that is, closer attention on the part of elected officials to the medium- and long-term needs of their constituents. Now, given the political corruption infecting much of sub-Saharan Africa, there is too much attention to short-term priorities — to making the kinds of decisions that benefit persons in office, not their successors.
Africa’s energy deficit is intimately related now to failures to pay full regard to such national, rather than parochial, concerns. In terms of delivering the services that citizens want, foremost is abundant, readily available, reliable and inexpensive electric power. That is what Africa desperately requires before it can serve its citizens fully and embrace their present and future needs for progress.

Robert I. Rotberg is a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center; senior fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation; president emeritus of the World Peace Foundation and founding director of Harvard’s Kennedy School program on intrastate conflict.

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Category: Dispatches

About the Author ()

Robert I. Rotberg is Fulbright Research Professor at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, Carleton University and a senior fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation.

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