Saturday, June 06, 2015

Power to Africans

Africa’s energy crisis seldom makes the headlines, yet 621 million Africans – two-thirds of the continent's population – live without electricity. The social, economic and human costs are devastating.  The toxic fumes released by burning firewood and dung kill 600,000 people a year – half of them children. Health clinics are unable to refrigerate life-saving vaccines and children are denied the light they need to study. And the numbers are rising.

A kettle boiled twice a day in the United Kingdom uses five times as much electricity as someone in Mali uses in a year. The latest Africa Progress Panel report, published this week, estimates that 138 million households living on less than $2.50 a day spend US$10bn annually on energy-related products, including charcoal, candles and kerosene. Measured on a per-unit cost basis, these poor households pay 60-80 times more for energy than people living in London or Manhattan. Nigeria is one of the world’s biggest oil exporters but 93m Nigerians depend on firewood and charcoal for heat and light. On current trends, there is no chance that Africa will hit the global target of energy for all by 2030.

The region’s power utilities are notoriously inefficient because utilities are vehicles for political patronage and, in some cases, institutionalised theft. US$120m went missing from the Tanzanian state power utility last year though a complex web of off-shore companies.

Sub-Saharan Africa has some of the world’s most abundant and least exploited renewable energy sources, especially solar power. With the price of solar panels plunging, there are opportunities for firms and governments to connect millions of poor households to affordable small-scale, off-grid systems. Bangladesh has installed over 3.5m off-grid solar power systems, and the figure is set to double over the next few years. In Africa, a vibrant off-grid solar industry is poised for take-off. The only thing missing in most countries is government action to support, encourage and enable this.

Supporting the development of large-scale renewable energy is not just the right thing to do for Africa. It is also the smart thing to do on climate change. One of the symptoms of Africa’s energy poverty is the destruction of forests to produce charcoal for rising urban populations: fewer trees means the loss of vital carbon sinks.

150 years after Edison developed the light bulb, it is time to spark an African energy revolution. We do not lack the technologies to do so: all that’s needed is the vital connection of cooperation and political will.

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