Politics of Poverty

The energy challenge in sub-Saharan Africa

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Wind turbines in Kenya. Source: http://bit.ly/1YiatTZ

Two new research reports from Oxfam and the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory, at the University of California, Berkeley, frame an agenda for advocates seeking to advance sustainable energy access in the region.

Sub-Saharan Africa’s energy systems face an enormous challenge. The region currently generates the lowest amount of electricity in the world  and experiences the most acute forms of energy poverty. Across the region, approximately 630 million people live without reliable access to electricity, and 790 million people are forced to rely on solid biomass to cook their food and heat their homes. The results are deprivation, pollution, environmental damage, drudgery, and forgone economic opportunity. Compounding these challenges is Africa’s vulnerability to climate change, which means that traditional pathways to increasing energy supply, based on the burning of fossil fuels, will become increasingly unviable.

Recent and ongoing decreases in the cost of renewable energy technologies are creating new opportunities for the region. At one end of the scale, small, distributed wind and solar plants create the possibility to connect households more quickly and cheaply than if African countries relied on traditional approaches to expanding the grid. At the other end of the scale, cheap renewable technologies mean that Africa has an unprecedented opportunity to provide industrial scale electricity at competitive prices, without driving climate change.

Two new research reports, by Oxfam and the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory, at the University of California, Berkeley, point out that in order to take advantage of these possibilities, countries in sub-Saharan Africa will need to address a number challenges.

Limited grid flexibility: Challenges and solutions

Challenge: In order to get large amounts of electricity from variable energy  sources, like wind and solar, countries in sub-Saharan Africa will need to be able to cope with the rapid changes in weather (such as the sun going behind clouds or the wind dying down) that can suddenly cause electricity to become unavailable.

Solution: Link-up the electricity systems across sub-Saharan Africa into larger ‘power pools’ so that different areas can back each other up – with sunny areas supplying power to places which might have become cloudy.

Challenge: How to address sudden increases in demand, caused most often when people come home from work and turn on household appliance, which wind and solar can struggle to meet as the wind cannot simply be expected to blow harder and the sun goes down.

Solutions: The first is to try and change when people use electricity so that the increase in demand that happens in the evening isn’t so large. The second is to invest in smart grids, which will be able to temporarily turn off unnecessary appliances, thereby limiting demand and making electricity available for essential appliances. The third is to invest in energy generation that can be turned on and off quickly to account for these rapid changes. Generally this means more gas and hydroelectric power stations (which can be turned on quickly) and less coal and nuclear (which take a long time to get to full capacity).

Addressing energy access

Simply increasing generation capacity, will not automatically improve energy access. To this end, distributed renewable energy systems (like solar home systems and mini-grids) can play an important role in providing households with their first electricity connection, as they are both cheaper and faster to roll out than the grid. In addition, the private sector can provide these technologies, which avoids some of the problems of dysfunctional electricity utilities that have plagued energy access efforts in sub-Saharan Africa to date.

These advantages notwithstanding distributed technologies do still face a number of challenges that will require concerted efforts to overcome.

  • Electricity from these systems is often more expensive than electricity purchased from the grid, which can be a challenge for poor households. In particular it limits the possibilities for the private sector to invest in distributed energy systems as the small size of the market makes returns hard to come by.
  • Although poor households place a great deal of value on access to electricity, this is principally for the purpose of lighting their homes and running electronic devices, not for cooking and heating their homes.

In order to take advantage of the possibilities for distributed renewables to address energy poverty the following actions will need to be taken:

  • Public and donor money will need to be used to catalyze the conditions for private investment.
  • The state will need to create a suitable regulatory environment which ensures quality for consumers buying electricity from privately-owned, distributed powerplants, and which protects investors in distributed renewable systems who might be undercut by the cheaper electricity available from the grid, when it arrives. This is important as eventual grid expansion is likely to be necessary in order to provide people with the cheapest electricity and in order to achieve the geographic diversity necessary to support large amounts of renewable generation.
  • Solutions to the challenge of energy for cooking will need to be developed and promoted.
  • Finally, transparency and accountability reforms will be necessary to ensure that state support to the private sector is sustainable and does not result in large-scale corruption.

Overall, the research reveals that while technological developments in renewable energy create opportunities for addressing the energy challenge in sub-Saharan Africa it is clear that a number of significant policy and institutional challenges remain. It is vital that the current focus on technological opportunities of renewables does not cause us to overlook the policy and institutional challenges involved in realizing a just and equitable energy transition.

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