Cleaning the grid: electricity generation in Africa
With renewable energy still costly in Sub-Saharan Africa, natural gas is the carbon fuel of choice
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 UN’s 17 sustainable development goals (SDGs) are a road map for rectifying humanity’s errors and achieving the promise of a sustainable future. They are a road map 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 to 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 a major contributor to climate change.
“Energy is crucial for achieving almost all of the SDGs, from its role in the eradication of poverty through to advancements in health, education, water supply and industrialisation, to combating climate change,” the UN said 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 2000 to close to 90% today. Yet 840-million people 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 about 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 such as SA, a major regional economy, illustrates these characteristics quite clearly. Reliance on coal for electricity in SA sits at 90%. 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 SA 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 $2.37bn.
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, such as wind and solar power, this path, too, is fraught with challenges.
For a start, the potential to employ renewables 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 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 such as Mozambique highly significant for the future energy mix of Sub-Saharan Africa. Moreover, liquefied national gas (LNG) supplies and construction of a receiving infrastructure can solve this issue.
Clearly this presents an opportunity for other regional economies, too. If SA were to seek investment to realign its energy infrastructure with natural gas, it could provide many benefits, nationally and regionally.
First, this would stabilise what has been a turbulent power grid in SA. It would also create economic activity that would nourish the local economy. And second, 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.
• Harris is a UK-based freelance journalist.
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