Thirteen of the world’s 20 least electrified countries are in Africa. Around 630 million people live without access to electricity in sub-Saharan Africa.
“What will help Africa defeat energy poverty: glorified renewables or time-tested, dense, reliable conventional energies?”
The African energy renaissance never happened. Most of the continent is still in the dark and far behind the rest of the world in energy production.
Now, the challenges faced by Africa’s energy sector have only been complicated by European interests in climate policy-driven renewable energy.
What will help Africa defeat energy poverty: glorified renewables or time-tested, dense, reliable conventional energies?
African Energy Situation
Africans are very nearly 1/6th of the world’s people, but they consume just 1/30th of the world’s primary energy. Thirteen of the world’s 20 least electrified countries are in Africa. Around 630 million people live without access to electricity in sub-Saharan Africa.
Among those who do have electricity access, reliability is a big issue. Fewer than one out of three of sub-Saharan African hospitals and healthcare facilities have access to reliable electricity, and over half have no electricity at all.
Around 730 million people in Africa rely on highly polluting biomass for cooking. Wood for fuel and charcoal for cooking together make up most of the primary energy consumed in the continent. Though it’s a renewable resource, most of the world has already moved away from biomass because of its low quality and harms to health.
In South Africa—the most advanced energy state in Africa—electricity production is dominated by coal power. South Africa is the only nation in Africa to produce electricity from nuclear sources, with nearly 14,202 gigawatt-hours of electricity produced in 2013.
As they are for any developed economy in the West, and for other developing economies in the East, fossil fuels are key to Africa’s energy sector. They act as the propellants of the fast economic development necessary to alleviate poverty and meet basic energy demands.
However, there is a very serious threat to Africa’s plans of consolidating and developing fossil fuel resources.
The climate-change movement has taken firm control of the political institutions in Europe, which is a major contributor of capital for Africa’s development.
As a result, those in authoritative positions in the European Union, United Nations, and various non-profits are keen on developing renewable energy resources—especially wind and solar—in Africa, as they believe it is environment friendly and prevents climate change.
However, the inefficiency of renewable resources in generating electricity is well documented.
Unlike coal, oil, natural gas, and nuclear, the electricity generated from renewables is intermittent–and unpredictably so. Both wind and solar are weather dependent, and there are frequent short-term (a few hours) and long-term disruptions (12 hours every day for solar, and many months for wind) in electricity generation.
Currently, there are no backup solutions as standby for this variability in production. The only solution is to support the renewable grid with conventional energy sources when these renewable sources go off. But that means paying twice for energy: once for the renewable generators, which work some of the time, and again for the conventional and nuclear generators, which work all the time—and paying twice is exactly what Africans, with their poverty, cannot afford to do.
Geographically too, the feasibility for energy generation from these sources is very limited. For example, wind potential exists only in the countries of Morocco and Egypt, with significantly lower potential in Tunisia, South Africa, and Tanzania.
Even during their operational hours, peak production from wind and solar does not match well with the peak of demand during busy hours.
And even if they do miraculously manage to produce the right amount of energy, the cost of production remains very high and will likely be passed on to the consumers in a continent barely able to afford electricity. Renewables are also significantly more expensive than coal-powered energy.
These are the major reasons why renewable energy has not taken off.
Contrary to the media reports, the use of renewable energy has gone down drastically in the past two centuries. In the 19th century, most of the world’s energy came from human labor, wood, and domestic animals. During the latter half of the 20th century, renewable energy provided only around 14 percent of the total energy.
Despite the worldwide progress in wind and solar technology during the past four decades, renewables contributed only a minor percentage of world’s total energy production.
In 2015, total contribution of renewables (excluding hydroelectric) to global electricity production was just around 6.7 percent. Solar energy produced only one percent of all electricity used globally. The current business-as-usual scenario of the Paris agreement suggests that only 16.5 percent of energy in 2040 will come from all renewables (including hydroelectric and biomass).
There is not a single major economic superpower in the world that became so by depending on renewable energy. Each of the current economic powerhouses was fostered and supported by a vibrant and fast-growing fossil-fuel industry.
Africa’s energy demand is projected to multiply six times by 2040. The threat from the pro-renewable, anti-fossil fuel entities could prove to be the biggest hurdle for the development of the continent’s energy sector—and consequently for its conquest of poverty.
Africa’s future will be determined by its ability to produce and provide energy to the vast regions, with their hundreds of millions of people, that remain powerless. Doing so requires bypassing the restrictive energy policies promoted in the name of climate change. Fossil fuel based energy is the most affordable and reliable.
Fiona Kobusingye, former chairwoman of the human rights and economic development group CORE Uganda, best conveyed this in her article, “End environmental experiments on Africans!“:
China and India put up with immoral eco-colonialism for decades…..Finally, they had enough. They refused to be the environmentalist’s experimental pawns any longer. They took charge of their own destinies, charted their own future, financed their own projects, and refused to be stopped again by anti-development green policies, politicians, and pressure groups.”
Africa should do the same.
Vijay Jayaraj (M.Sc., Environmental Science, University of East Anglia, England) is Research Associate for Developing Countries for the Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation. He lives lives in Bangalore, India. His previous posts at MasterResource examined China coal policies and India energy needs. (Other Jayaraj posts can be seen here.)