Energy is the single largest driver of development around the world. Access to adequate amounts for our burgeoning global population is one of the main challenges the world faces. For Africa, access to energy is very much tied to the environment; charcoal and firewood are the main sources of energy for much of the continent.
According to a recent study, Africa has a population of 300 million knocking on the door to middle class status. This upward mobility will put extreme demands on the continent’s struggling public resources like water and electricity. Middle class growth equals more consumption, and more consumption equals higher demand to power the continent’s purchasing habits. Cell phones, televisions, permanent housing, cars and office buildings all require energy.
The question is how can African states meet this increasing demand for energy without further harming the environment? The answer is not easily agreed upon, nor is there a single solution to the problem. Solar, wind, and hydro sectors, all have their implementation challenges across the continent’s large and varied landscape.
The answer perhaps lies in the smart implementation of a combination of the above energy innovations. It is only when we dig a little deeper that we understand how energy generation is acutely affected by climatic changes. Take for example East Africa’s challenge of generating enough hydro energy while maintaining a balance with the environmentally delicate Nile basin. Two publications recently looked closely at East Africa’s energy challenge. ESI-Africa looked at the challenges facing the countries dependent on the River Nile for hydro electricity:
Nile Technical Advisory Committee chairperson Fred Mwango told a Nile Basin Initiative (NBI) meeting here that Egypt and Sudan were still wary of water security due to their countries' geographic locations.
Stretching more than 6,600km from Lake Victoria to the Mediterranean, the Nile is a vital water and energy source for the nine countries through which it flows.
Less than 20% of the 300 million inhabitants of the NBI countries had access to electricity, while in some the figure was as low as 3%.
Annual per-capita electricity consumption in the Basin ranges from 1,800kWh in Egypt to only 20kWh in Burundi, whereas per capita consumption of 500kWh is considered a minimum level by today's standards.
Meanwhile, AFREPREN/FWD, looked at some solutions the region could implement to address the single-source problem:
Countries using renewable energy sources to diversify their electricity appear better able to survive the impacts of severe droughts than those relying exclusively on hydropower. For example, Kenya is more resilient than Tanzania and Uganda to drought-induced power generation shortfalls, because Kenya uses a wider range of renewables, including geothermal power, biomass generation and, to a lesser extent, wind.
Diversification as a strategy will need technologies able to adequately meet the needs of a growing continent. Africa contributes over a billion of the Earth’s now 7 billion humans. Solar energy, for all its renewability, lacks mature distribution strategies--although several small initiatives, like our partner Solar Sister in Uganda, are working to that end. Additionally, the cost of solar power is still out of reach for those needing to power more than a desk lamp.
The call for diversification of sources of clean energy is all well and good, but particular attention must be paid to the need to invest in next generation infrastructure to deliver power to the last mile. While solar power offers the ability to leap-frog the need for an energy distribution infrastructure, large-scale use of solar power will still require investments in infrastructure. For example, Egypt’s first solar thermal plant, which went live earlier this year just outside of Cairo, required a $220 million investment.
There exist vast opportunities to spur green economies to address the problem of energy poverty on the continent. But is the continent ready to accept that challenge? How can Africa collectively mobilize to maximize its efforts towards a zero emissions energy strategy? Should funding organizations re-strategize priorities towards energy infrastructure development on the continent? Energy poverty and environmental concerns are complexly intertwined. But the deeper the complexity, the more marketable opportunities there are for the continent. Perhaps a great starting point to set off a needed discussion on this topic is, “what happens if Africa doesn’t find an adequate solution to power its growing middle class?”