Tuesday, October 21, 2014

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Electricity is King

Think Africa Press explores the challenges of and need for greater electrification in Sub-Saharan Africa.
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Low electrification rates in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) present a significant barrier to African economic and social development. In terms of SSA’s development ‘Electricity is King’: electricity access is an issue which needs to be addressed in order to improve the lives of a large and growing number of Africans. Methods do exist to improve electricity access, and such improvements can be facilitated in a sustainable way through clean energy technologies.

Electrification rates in SSA

In 2009, the population of SSA estimated to have access to electricity was 31%, compared to an average electrification rate of 73% in developing countries worldwide. The SSA figures can however be somewhat misleading as the number of people with electricity access varies significantly with location. For example, urban electrification in SSA was 59.9% in 2009, whereas rural electrification rates were only 14.3%. There can also be a large difference in electrification between countries. South Africa had electrification rates of 75% in 2009, compared to only 9% in both Uganda and Malawi. These figures demonstrate that there are large parts of rural SSA, such as in Malawi and Uganda, with absolutely no access to electricity. Furthermore, the number of people in SSA without electricity access is expected to increase from 585m to 652m by 2030, in line with continuing high population growth rates: the population of SSA is estimated to increase from 863 million in 2010, to approximately 1.3 billion in 2030, before rising to 1.75 billion in 2050.

The benefits of electricity access

One of the many benefits of electricity access is that it has a positive impact on business and, therefore, the economy. It allows businesses to stay open longer because of better lighting after dark, while can function more efficiently through the use of powered machinery. Electrification has also been shown to provide a greater number of jobs as a result of improved small-scale business opportunities.

The availability of light from electricity can also have a positive impact on education through enabling children to study after dark. Although this has been possible through the fairly widespread use of kerosene lamps, the toxic fumes released by the lamps has detrimental effects on health. In the same way, modern cooking methods also prevent the use of kerosene and other more polluting methods. The smoke from using biomass (wood, charcoal, tree leaves, crop residues and animal dung), used by approximately 80% of SSA often with, again, a negative impact on health, can be alleviated through electrification.

Electricity access can have significant implications for health. Medical centres are able to provide better services not only as a result of improved lighting conditions through electrification, but also, for example, from the ability to store vaccines and medicines which require refrigeration. In a study by the World Bank on rural households in 11 developing countries, health also improved as a result of electrification due to an ability to access more and improved information relating to health.

Access to communication technologies and improved communication infrastructure generally - through the use of radio, television and mobile phones - can have educational advantages, facilitate more efficient market and business activity, provide information and warnings in the case of natural disasters and the opportunity for societal mobilisation - as has been made apparent in Egypt - and monitoring of the actions of the authorities in situations of political unrest. 

Facilitating access to electricity

For the countries and regions that do not have access to the abundant oil reserves seen in Nigeria and Angola, clean energy technologies are a viable solution. One of the largest barriers to facilitating widespread access to electricity, however, is the insufficient infrastructure available in large parts of SSA. The planned 300MW Lake Turkana Wind Power Project will supply 17% of Kenya’s power when it is commissioned in 2012, but this will not provide electricity access to those furthest from the grid. To demonstrate this point, the World Bank produced a report in 2009 looking at the cost (as a % of Gross National Income (GNI) per capita) for small and medium-sized businesses to get access to electricity: SSA had the highest costs in the world, at an average of 6,407% for small and medium-sized businesses, compared to a world average of 1,965%, while African countries also represented all ten countries with the highest costs to access electricity. Although this data is for small and medium-sized businesses, it serves as an indicator for the poor electricity infrastructure preventing many households in SSA from getting electricity from the grid. And it is likely to be some time before enough money is invested to guarantee electricity access from the grid, particularly for more rural communities.

An alternative solution is to facilitate the use of off-grid or mini-grid technologies which can provide electricity to even the most remote communities on a much smaller scale, either for individual households or small communities. Two of the most obvious clean energy technologies for SSA are solar and biogas/biomass because of the significant solar and biomass resources. Some government targets indicate this potential. Uganda plans to install 80,000 households with small scale solar systems by 2017 as part of its rural electrification strategy, while the national domestic biogas programme in Rwanda targets the installation of 15,000 biogas digesters in rural households for cooking and lighting, with more than 200 already installed.

The vast number of people still without electricity access, however, means that a substantial amount of money is required to make it happen. At a time when charities and NGOs are finding it hard to source finances, the necessary investment will to some extent also need to come from the private sector. There is, therefore, a need for suitable policies and incentives to encourage investors. Uganda, for example, has recently demonstrated advanced “feed in tariffs” to develop and connect clean energy projects to the grid. But governments should also focus more on small-scale, off-grid technologies.

There is also a need to stimulate the market on the ground. Organisations such as Rural Energy Foundation and SNV are involved in such activities, which includes raising societal awareness of the technology and advantages it can bring. This will help the sector to grow, creating jobs and providing electricity access to a greater number of people.

Lastly, there is a need to make clean energy technologies more affordable to remote families and communities. In the long run, families can actually save money by using small-scale clean energy technologies, but there is a need to make it easier to get around the large upfront costs, and at the same time make Africans aware of such opportunities.

Although there is some activity focusing on these sectors, more needs to be done to make sure electricity access is facilitated on a much larger scale in order to halt the increasing number of people in SSA without access to electricity, particularly for remote communities without access to the grid. This would demonstrate a significant step in the right direction to encourage greater economic and social development in SSA.

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