More than a century after the light bulb was invented most of the African continent is still in the dark after nightfall. School children often cannot read after dusk, businesses cannot grow, and clinics cannot refrigerate medicine or vaccines, and industries are idled hampering economic growth, jobs, and livelihoods. Personally, I know how frustrating I find it to read with candles and hurricane lanterns in my undergraduate days. The smoke you inhale virtually reduces your comprehension rate and the dimness of the light reduces your interest in what you’re reading. Today some 25 countries in sub-Saharan Africa are facing a crisis evidenced by rolling blackouts. Although the African continent is well endowed both with fossil fuels and renewable resources, these are not evenly distributed, creating windfall profits for some countries and exacerbating the crisis in others.
Key Issues in Africa’s Energy Sector
- Low access and insufficient capacity – Some 24 percent of the population of sub-Saharan Africa has access to electricity versus 40 percent in other low income countries. Excluding South Africa, the entire installed generation capacity of sub-Saharan Africa is only 28 Gigawatts, equivalent to that of Argentina alone.
- Poor reliability – African manufacturing enterprises experience power outages on average 56 days per year. As a result, firms lose 6 percent of sales revenues in the informal sector. Where back-up generation is limited, losses can be as high as 20 percent.
- High costs – Power tariffs in most parts of the developing world fall in the range of US$0.04 to US$0.08 per kilowatt-hour. However, in Sub-Saharan Africa, the average tariff is US$0.13 per kilowatt-hour. In countries dependent on diesel-based systems, tariffs are higher still. Given poor reliability, many firms operate their own diesel generators at two to three times the cost with attendant environmental costs.
Shortcomings in the power sector threaten Africa’s long term economic growth and competitiveness. The cost to the economy of load-shedding is equivalent to 2.1 percent of GDP on average. In Nigeria, where I live, the situation is so bad, some estimates reveal that the GDP could increase by approximately 9% if industries can get an extra hour of electricity supply.
What did you do when the sun went down? If you’re reading this, chances are you switched on a light. But for the 1.3 billion people around the world who lack access to electricity, darkness is a reality. There is no electric light for children to do their homework by, no power to run refrigerators that keep perishables or needed medicine cold, no power for cooking stoves or microwaves. What light they have mostly comes from the same sources that humans have relied on forever–firewood, charcoal or dung–and the resulting smoke turns into indoor pollution that contributes to more than 3.5 million deaths a year. “For us, life does not stop after dark,” says Michael Elliott, president and CEO of the development non-profit ONE. “For 550 million people in sub-Saharan Africa and many more than that around the rest of the world, it does.” That lack of electricity is called energy poverty, and it’s a development challenge that hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves. It’s easy to see why. Extreme poverty, global hunger, HIV/AIDS and malaria are all immediate threats to human life. Not having somewhere to plug in a cell phone, by contrast, might seem like an inconvenience at worst. But energy poverty is connected to a host of deeper ills: 90% of the children in sub-Saharan Africa go to primary schools that lack electricity, which means no fans or air conditioners in the equatorial heat, no computers, no lights for evening classes. Economic growth is stunted as a result–60% of African businesses cite access to reliable power as a binding constraint on their operations. Energy poverty is even a political issue. In Pakistan, which has just half the electrical-generation capacity of the state of Virginia, frustration over an antiquated grid helped get President Asif Ali Zardari kicked out of office this year.
The good news is that the issue is slowly receiving more notice. The summer of 2013 saw President Barack Obama announce his Power Africa initiative, which promises more than $7 billion over the next five years to bring electricity access to 20 million new households in countries like Ethiopia and Ghana. Development groups like ONE have begun making energy poverty a priority, weaving it into long-standing health and economic programs. “A light where currently there is darkness. The energy needed to lift people out of poverty,” Obama told South African students in June. “That’s what opportunity looks like.” But the challenge is enormous. While some 1.7 billion people have acquired access to electricity globally since 1990, the rate of electrification has been slower than the rate of population growth in the most energy-poor countries. The World Bank estimates that it would take $1 trillion a year in global investment to eliminate energy poverty by the year 2030–more than twice what is being spent now. And even that level of investment would guarantee the poorest of the poor only enough electricity to run a floor fan, a mobile phone and two compact fluorescent lights for five hours a day. The reality is that banishing energy poverty won’t be easy or cheap, and it may come with an environmental cost.
Much of Africa can and will be supplied with renewable energy sources–especially rural areas beyond the reach of any grid, where solar fits perfectly. But the fastest population growth is happening in the developing world’s exploding urban areas, which will eventually need the same reliable, grid-delivered electricity that developed cities enjoy. Some of that electricity will be generated by fossil fuels, including carbon-heavy coal. The result may well be an increase in greenhouse gases, but given that the average Ethiopian emits less than 1% of the carbon that the average American does, Africans should hardly feel climate guilt. For those who live in darkness, electricity by nearly any means will be worth the price.
Read more: Blackout: 1 Billion Live Without Electric Light | TIME.com http://www.business.time.com/2013/09/05/blackout-1-billion-live-without-electric-light/#ixzz2q1QEuMjO