{photo_credit}

The US-Africa Leaders Summit taking place in Washington, DC, early next week presents an opportunity for Obama, Congress, the United Nations, and other international agencies to wrestle with how to adopt a vision of sub-Saharan Africa electrification that is robust enough to truly unleash development. For this to happen, leaders can no longer conceive of access to electricity as a charity for rural villages, but instead as the process by which Africa will build roads and cities, run factories, and construct far-reaching, centralized electrical grids.

by Alex Trembath and Jenna Mukuno

When African heads of states descend on Washington, DC, for the US-Africa Leaders Summit, hosted by President Obama, the challenge of raising millions of Africans out of energy poverty is poised to take center stage. Adding to this conversation are the Electrify and Energize Africa Acts, two parallel pieces of legislation being moved through the House and Senate (respectively). If enacted, the legislation ensures the government will create a framework to increase electrification in sub-Saharan Africa, at no additional cost to US taxpayers.

This summer could quite possibly be the catalyst of Africa’s rise. But much will depend on how Obama, Congress, the United Nations, and other international agencies figure out how to adopt a vision of electrification that is robust enough to truly unleash development. For this to happen, leaders can no longer conceive of access to electricity as a charity for rural villages, but instead as the process by which Africa will build roads and cities, run factories, and construct far-reaching, centralized electrical grids.

Not everyone shares this vision. To meet the needs of rapidly growing economies, it has been suggested that small-scale, distributed renewable energy technologies are ready to displace the centralized grid. The Sierra Club, for one, believes that the “hardened and centralized infrastructure of the 20th century power grid” will be unnecessary in developing countries, where solar microgrids will power communities. The UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon argued in the New York Times last year that “developing countries can leapfrog conventional options in favor of cleaner energy solutions.”

But as a report from an international group of energy experts argues, the truth about Africa’s rise is much more prosaic. Poor nations will likely get energy the same way rich nations did: through an electrical grid that starts in cities and then expands to the countryside. And, as a separate analysis shows, if Africa is to leapfrog over coal, it will likely move toward more hydroelectric dams and natural gas, not solar or nuclear.

Whereas many northern and southern African nations have higher rates of energy access, 600 million people in sub-Saharan nations are still without electricity. But last year was the first year on record for more people to live in cities than in the country. The idea that poor people will remain in the countryside overlooks that the process of urbanization — leaving subsistence farming for jobs in the city — is already underway in much of Africa.

Rural electrification is usually the last and most expensive phase of achieving universal electrification. The economics are simple to understand: it is far cheaper to electrify a densely packed poor neighborhood in the city, than to line hundreds of miles of wire out to small communities in the country.

As a result, in sub-Saharan Africa, twice as many people gained access to electricity in cities than in the countryside of Africa in the last decade. And where 55 percent of people in sub-Saharan African cities have electricity, just 18 percent in the countryside do. By 2030, 70 percent of city dwellers are predicted to have electricity, where just 30 percent of those in the countryside.

Where sub-Saharan Africa is likely to differ from developing countries such as China and India is in relying far less on coal and more on natural gas and hydroelectric dams. Sub-Saharan Africa has larger natural gas reserves than the United States, which pioneered technologies that allowed for accessing natural gas from a new rock formation known as shale. Nations like Nigeria, Mozambique, and other poor sub-Saharan African nations have large oil and gas reserves. And natural gas reserves in Africa have grown even faster than North America’s in the midst of the US shale revolution.

Africa’s natural gas production doubled from under 100 billion cubic meters (bcm) in 1992 to over 200 billion in 2008, but it lags behind rich countries. Where the US has 700 bcm in proved natural gas reserves, sub-Saharan African nations have over 900. But where North America produces 15 bcm per year, African nations produce less than 4 bcm.

Where the United States and Europe consume slightly more oil and gas than they produce, almost half of all of Africa’s oil and gas resources are exported abroad. Over the next century, Africa will use more its own natural gas for its electricity, and oil for transportation, rather than simply sending it abroad, as it has since colonial rule by Europe in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

As Africa develops, it will also increasingly build large dams. Almost 100 gigawatts – five times the capacity of China’s Three Gorges Dam – of hydro capacity are planned throughout the continent, compared to 22 gigawatts of existing hydro capacity in Africa. The Africa Development Bank and the World Atlas expect that economic African hydro capacity could be increased by a factor of seven.

Meanwhile, solar panels remain far more expensive in Africa than either natural gas or hydroelectric dams. And though nuclear power is being pursued by Kenya, few energy analysts see the technology providing much power to sub-Saharan Africa for many decades.

Proponents of the idea that Africa can leapfrog to solar power and other small-scale distributed power sources might point to a recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which shows the costs of renewable energy technologies coming down. Solar-powered microgrids can provide very basic energy access, and they are gaining traction in Africa, especially when they replace costly diesel generators. But solar microgrids in developing countries remain very expensive and only provide extremely low levels of electricity. They also require back-up generators to keep the lights on when the sun isn’t shining.

Those who choose to conceive of energy access as simply a matter of lighting up a small, rural household might find expanding solar microgrids ambitious enough. The UN’s flagship energy access program, for one, claims that “basic human needs” can be met with enough electricity to power a fan, a couple of light bulbs, and a radio for five hours a day. But as any developed country can attest, that’s not enough to satisfy basic consumption needs much less to build modern infrastructure.

Robust energy access plans must deal with the implications of the full energy ladder, which accounts for much greater energy consumption through processes of urbanization, agricultural intensification, and industrialization. A recent report from the Sierra Club acknowledges the existence of the energy ladder, and yet defines energy access at levels where the world’s poor consume just 0.15 percent of the average Californian each year. 

Cheap and reliable forms of modern energy undergird every aspect of development – from building roads to powering water purification plants to refrigerating lifesaving vaccines and liberating women and children from manual labor. There are stark tradeoffs if the United States chooses to invest in technologies that inappropriate for the African context. Consider that 60 million more Africans would gain electricity if the same $10 billion were invested in natural gas rather than exclusively renewables, according to a recent analysis by the Center for Global Development.

As world leaders convene in Washington this summer, we need to recognize that to spur economic and human development, the continent will need to use much more energy. Beginning with this as their premise, and by understanding what’s happening on the ground, future development and aid policies are better able to truly unleash Africa’s potential. 

Photo Credit: China Daily