/ 27 June 2022

Electricity for all in Africa in eight years a possibility but ‘formidable’ task

Electricity Power Lines Running Through The Countryside Outside Of Cape Town.
(David Harrison)

By 2030, nearly 600 million more Africans could have access to electricity. 

The number of homes with refrigerators would jump from 80 million to 200 million. A billion people would no longer cook with wood and charcoal, using clean energy instead. Homes would have fewer toxic fumes. Four million more people would have jobs building a continent-wide energy grid. Trade would be stronger, and on fairer terms.

This is feasible. It isn’t that expensive. It would also change the fortunes of the continent’s soon-to-be 1.7 billion people while adding just half a percentage point to global carbon emissions.

That’s the sales pitch of a new, comprehensive report by the International Energy Agency.

Africa Energy Outlook 2022 came out this week. It charts how the continent can get electricity to everyone by 2030. It was produced with the African Union and the United Nations’ Economic Commission for Africa. Policymakers are meant to use it as a guide.

The agency does admit that the task would be “formidable”.

Right now, 600 million Africans don’t have access to electricity. Nearly 40% of people live in extreme poverty and 10% of the population owning 70% of all wealth. 

Price hikes, thanks to the effect of the Covid-19 on the economy and then Russia’s war on Ukraine, have made electricity unaffordable for 30 million Africans who had just got access. And 80% of people rely on wood, dung and charcoal to cook food, boil water and warm their homes. The pollution from that in homes kills half a million people a year.

This is in a continent with the best solar resources in the world. With 14% of all oil and 7% of gas reserves. And with 40% of crucial resources like cobalt, manganese and platinum.

But many of these resources get dug up and sent overseas. In the past decade, 70% of the investment in oil and gas was by multinational fossil fuel companies. These resources get sold back to Africa at higher cost. 

Cameroon’s sole refinery burnt down in 2019 and hasn’t been replaced, so the country has to pay a premium to ship in the fuel that powers its economy. Nigerians are short of diesel (where generators make up 40% of the national power supply) even though their country is a huge crude oil exporter.

A full 20% of Africa’s GDP is spent on imports and a large chunk of that is on energy. This is money that builds up other parts of the world. That wealth, built on top of centuries of imperialism, allows them to lend money to this continent at ruinous rates – the debt repayment to build a renewable energy project in Africa is up to seven times higher than that of a similar project in Europe.

The energy outlook’s vision sees energy, primarily in the form of electricity, changing many of these dynamics.

Getting there would see Africa’s power capacity doubling by 2030, from 260 gigawatts to 510GW. Two thirds of this would be renewable, mostly from new hydroelectric projects and also wind and solar panels. 

Coal would almost vanish, replaced by gas, still a polluting fossil fuel but overall better than coal. This would flow to people in a mix of extending national grids and building small grids for communities far from cities (Africa is rapidly urbanising but the majority of people still live in rural areas).

Building that network comes with a huge investment and creates four million jobs. New energy investment would need to start at $25-billion a year, or just over 6% of the continent’s GDP. 

A further $22-billion needs to be spent on the infrastructure to move energy around, particularly between countries. Kenya, for example, has excess potential energy thanks to its geothermal deposits, so could sell that to neighbours who would have that as a backup to their wind and solar plants. Replacing polluting cookers in homes with clean ones would need $2.5-billion a year.

In global terms, this isn’t much money. The $25-billion annual new energy investment is about how much other regions spend on energy. It’s also the price of just one of the liquefied natural gas terminals that Germany is building to escape its reliance on Russia.

The total funding Africa needs for the eight-year plan is a fraction of what rich countries promised in 2009 to pay to countries being destroyed by their climate pollution. The money hasn’t been delivered but African countries, and their peers, keep hammering the point home at global climate negotiations. The next round of these will be held in Egypt. 

The energy outlook report sees this as a hook to force development and financing on African terms.

And there is a precedent for this scale of development. In the 1980s, 15% of Ghanaians had access to electricity. That was 50% by 2005 and it’s now 85%. Rwanda and Kenya are on similar trajectories. 

More than 90% of the residents of Algeria, Cabo Verde, Egypt, Gabon and Morocco have electricity. India has already rolled out solar power and clean cooking systems at the rate needed in Africa. China plans to build 156GW of renewables this year. Across this continent, in the past decade, 160 million people have gained access to electricity.

More electricity would be a catalyst for much more development. Building energy infrastructure would grow all sorts of industries — by 40% by 2030. More roads would be built. More railways.

More electricity would mean more refrigeration, so less food would be lost (those losses run at 20% now).

More electricity would also mean more power for irrigation. With 80% of crops currently relying on rainfall, Africa is vulnerable to changing climate systems. Irrigation will mitigate against that.

And rapid urbanisation on the continent means 70 million homes have to be built. As access to electricity grows, so Africa’s middle class will expand. More people would have savings and pensions, which would be invested back in infrastructure projects, in turn building more energy.

Under the plan, Africa’s GDP would grow by 50% by 2030. That’s a crucial buffer when climate change is projected to reduce that GDP by 8% by 2050.

The scale and timeline are ambitious. But it is a plan. It would change the fortunes of a whole continent. If leaders wanted to. And if the NGOs, governments and companies overseas that benefit from African poverty acted in the continent’s interest. 

Gas exports

Russia’s war on Ukraine has created a sudden opportunity for countries that export gas. Europe wants lots of it, so it doesn’t give billions of dollars to a country at war with its neighbour. 

Countries with excess capacity such as Algeria are already selling more. The high price of gas is also pouring more money into the national accounts of countries like Nigeria. That county is looking again at a long-delayed pipeline across the Sahara. 

Oil giant Eni has signed agreements with the Republic of Congo, Egypt and Algeria to develop gas exports. TotalEnergies wants to press ahead with its mega project in northern Mozambique, paused thanks to an insurgency driven by people’s anger at unequal resource distribution in the area. Senegal and Tanzania also want to profit.

But the Africa Energy Outlook 2022 report warns that countries could be gambling on sales, considering that Europe plans to sharply decrease gas use from 2030. Rich countries burning fossil fuels is also the main driver of climate change. 

This article first appeared in The Continent, the pan-African weekly newspaper produced in partnership with the Mail & Guardian. It’s designed to be read and shared on WhatsApp. Download your free copy here.