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Africa, China, Congo, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, South Africa, Sudan, Zimbabwe

In the Dark: Africa’s Desperate Energy Shortfall

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 Re-
public 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, “loadshedding,”
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.

This post first appeared, under virtually the same title, in Diplomat & International Canada Jan.-Feb. 2016

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