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Energy Access in Africa: Don’t Forget Reliability!

Though it is no longer a news that access to modern forms of energy is required for the wellbeing of a society, access to reliable energy supply continues to be a challenge for sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) and has greatly impeded development in the region. In this context, the sustainable development goal number 7.1 aims to provide universal energy for all by 2030.

In 2014, electrification rate in SSA overshadowed population growth and thus significant progress was made in the energy for all agenda1. However, similar progress has not been made in access to clean combustible cooking fuels. Though the number of households switching to clean cooking fuels has been increasing in the region, the impact has been overwhelmed by population increase. Grid expansion and provision of liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) cooking equipment have been the main means of electrifying and providing clean cooking fuels in the region. 

However, connecting households to the grid is not just enough to postulate that they have gained access to electricity. How reliable is the electricity supply? More so, providing households with LPG cooking equipment might look good at the onset, but questions need to be asked about the availability of LPG in the local area as well as its affordability.

In SSA, electricity outages per month ranges from around 12.3 in D.R. Congo to about 32.8 hours in Nigeria. Similarly, in the remote rural area, many households are extremely poor and cannot afford to refill their gas cylinders and, in some cases, the vendors are not even available.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) defines energy access as “a household having reliable and affordable access to both clean cooking facilities and to electricity, which is enough to supply a basic bundle of energy services initially, and then an increasing level of electricity over time to reach the regional average.

Going by the IEA’s definition, we can only rejoice when energy access is reliable and affordable.

Consequently, by 2030, SSA may be celebrating grid access and not electricity access as well as LPG cylinder/stove ownership but not access to clean combustible cooking equipment. This further have a negative effect on the socio-economic development of the region. While we celebrate energy access, households have a great chance of returning to crude sources of lighting such as kerosene lanterns and candles during blackouts which further limits other aspects of life such as access to electronic information and good health. With respect to cooking fuels, many households will still be depending on traditional biomass for cooking by 2030, if mechanisms are not in place to ensure that modern cooking equipment are affordable for the poorest in the society.

What is the way forward? 

With regard to electricity access, infrastructure development needs to be enhanced. The traditional method of grid expansion may not be the only solution now. Efforts that incorporate mini-grids as well as self-generation via renewables in electricity planning may go a long way to complement the conventional grid. The benefits of including renewables in energy planning in SSA are numerous. Apart from our obligation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in a carbon constrained world, renewables will also ensure energy security in the region, good air quality, and green economy.

Mini-grids and self-generation using renewables will also help to reduce transmission and distribution losses in the electricity value chain, which is a major problem of SSA energy system. Energy efficiency is also another area that needs serious attention. Though there are many efforts in improving energy efficiency through demand side management techniques, more efforts are required to save energy, which can be used to serve other households who do not have access to electricity. Furthermore, there is need for smart grids and energy storage systems such as batteries to provide energy during peak demand to ensure that electricity supply constantly matches demand otherwise, grid reliability will still be a problem during such hours.

Access to clean combustible cooking fuels has mainly been linked to household income. Thus, business models that successfully remove the upfront cost and reduce the operation cost of using LPG for cooking will play a major role in this context. While this is necessary, improving rural income also has a role to play as many investors wouldn’t like to finance a project that is not financially viable.

Thus, energy access programs need to incorporate productive use of energy as well as energy for income generating activities in their initiatives. For instance, while providing electricity and clean cooking equipment to a household, such household can also be trained to do small/middle businesses such as tailoring which will help to raise their income. Away from conventional LPG use for cooking, renewable energies such as biogas, modern liquid biofuels, and solar energy can also be used for cooking via efficient biogas/biofuels stoves and solar cookers. Since renewable energy is free, this option will go a long way to ensure reliability of cooking fuels as well as reduce the operational cost of cooking equipment.

In sum, the energy demand of SSA is far beyond the supply capacity and this has been the main cause of poor reliability of energy supply in the region. The demand of energy in SSA is expected to rise in the future owing to population expansion and economic development. To ensure reliable energy supply will match to this growing demand, serious structural changes in the energy system of the region will be required.

To provide reliable energy for all in SSA by 2030 will require the massive expansion of the current electricity generation and transmission capacity. It will also require huge incorporation of renewables through mini-grid and off-grid systems. Innovative energy access initiatives that aims to improve rural income and availability of clean cooking fuels in the remotest villages of SSA are strongly needed. Failure to acknowledge the issue of reliabilit — an under researched yet highly important aspect of the energy for all agenda could put the energy 2030 agenda of SSA in jeopardy.

Reference

  1. IEA. World Energy Outlook 2017. Special Report: Energy Access Outlook. (International Energy Agency (IEA) and the Organisation of Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD), 2017).