Electricity in Africa
The dark continent
Aug 16th 2007 - The Economist
DAR ES SALAAM - Power shortages have
become one of the biggest brakes on development.
from space, Africa at night is unlit - as dark as all-but
empty Siberia. With nearly 1 billion people, Africa
accounts for over a sixth of the world's population,
but generates only 4% of global electricity. Three-quarters
of that is used by South Africa, Egypt and the other
countries along the north African littoral.
The need for more power stations in the rest of the
continent has long been recognised, but most of the
attempts at electrification in the 1970s and the 1980s
failed. In some countries, dictators pillaged power
stations for parts and fuel. In others, power stations
were built but not maintained. Turbines were run at
full capacity until they broke, then were abandoned.
By some counts, only 17 of Nigeria's 79 power stations,
many dating from this period, are still working; the
country's demand for power is an estimated 7,600 megawatts,
against an actual operating capacity of 3,500MW. The
World Bank reckons that 500m sub-Saharan Africans
are without what it calls "modern energy".
The situation is bound to get worse as the demand
for power continues to grow. Africa's relatively healthy
economic growth of recent years begets factories and
shopping centres - and power cuts galore. Whenever
demand outstrips supply, the lights go out - several
times during the writing of this story. The ubiquitous
exodus from huts to houses only adds to the strains.
Even the poorest rural migrants, once in the city,
prize electric lighting and television sets, and millions
are leaving their villages. Kenya's power utility
estimates that it adds 12,000 households a month to
the national grid.
For now, the continent remains
largely dependent on hydropower: 13 countries use
it for 60% or more of their energy. But Africa's rain
falls more variably than, say, Norway's, and its dams
often operate below capacity. Still, many new dams
are being planned. Ethiopia has staked its development
on damming the Blue Nile and other rivers. In west
Africa dams are due to be built on the Niger, the
Volta and Bandama. Some of these projects will be
held up by financial and environmental disputes, just
as Uganda's 250MW Bujagali dam on the White Nile has
been. But most will get built.
The river with the
biggest hydro potential is the Congo. The potential
demand, too, is huge. Only 6% of Congolese have access
to electricity and more power will be needed to get
at the country's trove of minerals. A grand project
to build a series of dams along the Congo's fast-flowing
stretches could theoretically supply 39,000MW, enough
to power the entire continent. But that will probably
remain a dream. Congo has a terrible reputation among
investors, and distributing the electricity across
thousands of kilometres, much of it jungle, would
pose formidable problems.
Aggreko, a company based
in Scotland, is the world's biggest supplier of temporary
electricity in the shape of back-up generators. It
meets up to 50% of Uganda's power needs, and 10% of
those of Kenya and Tanzania. It believes that the
global power shortfall in the next decade will be
much greater than predicted, perhaps over 500,000MW.
The ensuing competition for energy, it argues, will
see the world split between those countries whose
economies grow faster than their power consumption
and those, including most of Africa, whose power consumption
grows faster than their economies.
Many African governments
are looking at alternative sources of energy to make
up their projected shortfalls. Hydropower is clean,
from the point of view of greenhouse-gas emissions,
but most of the easy alternatives, notably coal, are
dirty. Donors committed to cutting global carbon emissions
are unlikely to favour more dirty coal-fired power
stations of the sort that predominate in South Africa,
although the government there claims that it wants
to clean them up. Some fossil fuels, however, are
less damaging than coal. A pipeline planned for west
Africa, which will carry gas that is now flared off
in oilfields, could stabilise electricity supply in
Few Africans in rural areas have access
to electricity. Connecting them to national grids
will be slow and expensive. Yet Lilliputian windmills,
water mills, solar panels and biomass furnaces could
have a big collective impact. The cost of lighting
a shack takes 10% of income in the poorest households
and the kerosene lamps are highly polluting. In response,
the World Bank has rolled out "Lighting Africa", an
ambitious effort to get 250m of the poorest Africans
on clean-energy lighting by 2030.
Talk of the mass
production of biofuels in Africa is premature, but
advances have been made. Some investors are backing
jatropha, a plant whose seeds produce an oil for burning
in generators. There is also an effort to tap geothermal
energy. The Great Rift Valley, from Eritrea to Mozambique,
could produce 7,000MW. Kenya hopes to get 20% of its
energy from geothermal sources by 2017.
think they can also use the steady winds in Africa's
mountain ranges for power production. And if the costs
of using the sun's warmth can be reduced to 30% below
its present cost, vast solar farms could offer cheap,
clean energy for African cities and in doing so boost
incomes in rural areas. Egypt, which relies mostly
on natural gas, is looking hard at solar power.
remedies for Africa's power shortages are more familiar
but just as urgent: more efficient appliances, such
as LED lighting, more deregulation, better use of
existing resources by, for instance, improving the
quality of power lines, and pooling power into regional
grids. Otherwise Africa will remain in the dark.