Sub-Saharan Africa starved of electricity; more power crucial for region to meet development goals
Sub-Saharan Africa’s energy shortages affect 60% of the region, and there is an active debate around how to improve the situation – whether basis off-grid or on-grid solutions – with the only consensus being that electricity generation is essential to meet the region’s basic development goals.(Image:ensia.com)
Chronic shortages of power affect the whole of Sub-Saharan Africa with almost 620 million people – comprising 60% of the Sub Saharan region’s population – lacking access to electricity. Besides, those who in theory have access, face very high prices for insufficient and unreliable supplies, according to the African Development Bank (AfDB).
And this lack of power is cause for grave concern, as countries which consistently suffer from electrification rates of less than 80% have a lower per-capita gross domestic product than other countries. Ultimately, more power is crucial if Africa is to meet its basic development goals.
However, how the solution to these chronic electricity shortages is identified, is equally important. Should electrification focus on off-grid or on-grid solutions? Should it prioritise fossil fuels or renewable energy? What is the appropriate role for governments, regional entities, and the private sector and community?
How these questions are answered will play a big role in the long-term sustainability of the region’s emerging power infrastructure as well as help determine the extent to which Sub-Saharan African nations can meet the greenhouse gas targets they set for themselves as part of the UN’s climate negotiation process.
Southern Africa leads the way in the region in terms of installed grid-based capacity of 58 gigawatts (GW), though 46 GW of that is in South Africa. West Africa has 20 GW, East Africa has 8.1GW and Central Africa has 4GW — compared to 80GW in the United Kingdom and 1,060 GW in the United States. This lack of grid capacity plays a big part in the region’s electricity shortage.
Obtaining access to electricity for rural Sub-Saharan Africans not currently connected to these grids will require decentralized solutions.
According to the International Energy Agency, 315 million people in rural areas will gain access to electricity by 2040 — 220 million of these through off-grid and mini-grid solutions, which typically involve producing electricity locally using diesel generators or renewables.
Uvie Ugono, chief executive officer and co-founder of Solynta Energy, which installs solar power kiosks in Nigeria and Ghana, says decentralisation is “absolutely the way to go” with the African energy supply, and is the “only viable alternative” given how poor and inefficient grid infrastructure is.
Uvie Ugono says: “It will take trillions of dollars of investment to get [grid infrastructure] up to scratch, with sufficient power generation to meet the needs of the continent. Added to that is the terrible state of the transmission infrastructure, which is also not fit for this purpose. It would be far easier to simply rebuild the entire infrastructure than to attempt to repair and increase its capacity.”
Grant McDermott, a research scholar at the Norwegian School of Economics, sees the situation a little differently. Large, centralized grids still constitute the most efficient and cost-effective way of delivering electricity in modern economies, he says.
Although deficient grid networks have constrained economic growth in many developing countries, that does not mean “the decentralized alternative offers an intrinsically superior solution,” he says.
“A grid system remains the first best option. Decentralized solutions are really a second-best option in the absence of the former. The distinction is crucial,” he concludes.