Powering Africa up: A low-carbon energy future is needed

There have been many articles written on the dearth of electrification on the African continent, and the desperate need for many countries to address their energy needs. One such widely quoted statistic is that of the International Energy Agency’s World Energy Outlook, which states that over 550-million people on the continent are without access to electricity. Despite progress made in sub-Saharan Africa in powering the region, efforts are still not keeping good pace with population growth, and many of those without electricity live in rural areas.

Embracing a low-carbon future

Africa is well-endowed in natural resources, from fossil fuels to abundant sunlight. Much of the strategies of electrification have centered around the cost, ease of electrification, human health impacts from using fossil-fuel based primary energy and climate change. Climate change is becoming widely recognized as one of the foremost challenges facing Africa, and the continent will also be the hardest hit.

The climate change vulnerability index lists seven of the 10 countries most at risk to climate effects in Africa, experiencing issues from droughts in southern Africa to flooding in east Africa. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change indicates that climate change will amplify existing water stress and adversely affect agricultural systems, impacting food security and increasing health vulnerabilities.

Africa in coming years will need to incorporate more renewable energy technologies to achieve significantly reduced carbon emissions. At the heart of addressing the energy deficit is a transition to a low-carbon energy future.

Off-grid may be the solution for Africa’s rural population

According to Sam Slaughter, chief executive of PowerGen, Africa is at a crossroads, and efforts to improve African electrification can be put into two major categories: large-scale projects involving generation, transmission and distribution infrastructure and on the other side, through market-driven approaches involving off-grid efforts.

On-grid is electricity provided through from a large, centralised power generation source, linked to a network that is then transmitted to a local area. Typically, a large-scale, grid-connected power project provides access to electricity at scale, with the ability to power many people at once, and is often the preferred pathway when built to serve an area with a high-density demand. This pathway is often slow, and it requires countries to have adequate regulation and transparency in procurement of power projects and large investments.

Off-grid power — defined as stand-alone systems that are not connected to a grid — typically power single household needs. Off-grid systems can be the most affordable pathway for reaching people in remote areas with low power demands. Through the market-based approach, there are large off-grid opportunities that countries need to encourage to reach more people at a faster rate.

According to the World Bank’s 2016 data, between 2014 and 2016, the off-grid population went down because of the electrification of 76-million people; 60% of this figure was people living in rural areas. But an article published by the World Economic Forum notes that though this was against a backdrop of a 54.5-million population growth.

Evidence of market leadership in off-grid electrification is most notably seen in East Africa, where support for decentralised renewable energy technologies has allowed entrepreneurs to reach people where utilities have not. Leading East African players such as d.light, Off-Grid Electric and M-Kopa solar are among those that have shaped the region and contributed to what is deemed an “energy revolution” in many villages and towns. Uptake for off-grid energy is expected to accelerate in the coming years, projected to grow from being a $1-billion size market to $6-billion by 2022. Therefore, adopting adequate market environments will be key to allowing this industry to thrive.

This article first appeared on Future Africa Forum http://www.futureafricaforum.org/what-is-the-state-of-electrification-in-africa/

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Lebo Mahlare
Lebo Mahlare
Lebo holds BSc degree in Chemical Engineering from the University of Cape Town, and holds a Masters in Urban Systems Engineering from NYU. Lebo is passionate about technology and its importance in African development. She is currently based in New York.

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