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Power to the people in Africa

Power to the people in Africa

Thursday marks the beginning of Powering Africa Summit in Washington on 9-10 March, which will bring American and African public and private sector executives together to discuss how to finance African power industry projects. 

A number of African government ministers – including, South Africa’s minister of energy Tina Joemat-Pettersson and Liberia’s minister of lands, mines and energy Patrick Sendolo – will be in attendance to discuss the options on public-private partnerships (PPPs). The Powering Africa Summit follows the Africa Energy Indaba held in Johannesburg in late February, where delegates discussed the future make-up of Africa’s generation mix. 

With the notable exception of South Africa, the Sub-Saharan power sector generates very low carbon emissions by global standards, partly because it generates low amounts of electricity but also because the region has relatively little thermal generating capacity. This is starting to change, as several coal-fired plants are planned and there is the potential for new gas-fired capacity.

Garth Strachan, the deputy director general and head of the gas industrialisation unit in South Africa’s Department of Trade and Industry, said: “Gas could be a game changer if we get it right. We need to be in conversation as a country with the region and of course collaborate with the private sector.”

However, it is often argued that Africa should attempt to leapfrog traditional power technologies and move straight towards renewable energy, particularly off-grid renewables. This would obviate the need to develop transmission and distribution grids, the development of which is already painfully slow. Off-grid solar power is now making a big breakthrough in East Africa, where each year hundreds of thousands of homes are receiving electricity for the first time.

The unconnected

According to World Bank figures, just 35.3% of Sub-Saharan Africans had access to electricity at the start of 2016, with rates ranging from 5.1% in South Sudan up to 100% in Mauritius, although rural connection rates of 10% or below are common across the continent. The next lowest regional rate is 78% for South Asia, while all five North African countries claim 100% coverage.

Demand is likely to rise fastest in countries that experience the most rapid economic growth. Speaking about the Powering Africa Summit, Anthony Giustini, regional managing partner for Africa at law firm Clifford Chance, said: “We remain bullish on investment all across the Continent. Some places to watch are Ethiopia, Nigeria, Ghana, Zambia, Morocco, Senegal, Uganda, Tanzania and Côte d’Ivoire.”

Enthusiasm over renewable energy is not restricted to countries that already have universal access to electricity and can now decide how they wish to change their generation mixes in an effort to combat global warming. A recent survey, financed by the government of the UAE, assessed public perceptions of energy policy and the environment in different countries around the world, including several in Sub-Saharan Africa. It found widespread support for renewables.

Surprisingly, a third of the Africans surveyed believe that there is less focus on the environment now than a decade ago. People in the region are a lot more concerned about the environment than their counterparts elsewhere but are also more optimistic about future sustainability in their respective countries.

Some investment could be made through former US president Barack Obama’s Power Africa initiative, which was supported by the Electrify Africa Act of 2015. It commits the United States to increased foreign aid and was achieved with bipartisan support.

Washington is contributing $7bn to the initiative but hopes to attract another $43bn in private sector investment in order to provide electricity to 50m Africans for the first time by 2020. That is only 8% of the number currently without access but is at least a big step in the right direction, providing it is actually implemented.

Many of the projects backed by Power Africa, such as the 152 MW Sarreole wind farm in Senegal, involve renewable energy. It also helps to fund off-grid programmes, usually involving solar PV or biomass, particularly by providing the technical support that small scale developers may lack. It describes the first kWh people gain access to as the “the most valuable” because it provides at least a single light bulb and the ability to charge mobile phones and radios.

Neil Ford

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