Africa’s Thorny Road to Universal Energy Access
About two centuries ago, developed countries began to gradually unpack abundant fossil fuel reserves and have since constructed gigantic infrastructures to transform fossil energy into useful energy services. From these developments, they enjoyed the benefits of cheap and universal access to energy, including rapid economic growth and fundamental improvements in standards of living. However, on the other end of the spectrum, approximately 621 million people in Sub-Saharan Africa still live without access to electricity (as visualized on the above photo) and are unable to experience any economic and social benefits that accompany access to modern energy services.
In Sub-Saharan countries, excluding South Africa, the consumption of electricity averages around 162 kilowatt-hours (kWh) per capita per year, a stark contrast to the global average of 7,000 kWh. It takes the average Tanzanian around eight years to consume as much electricity as an American uses in one month. As many African countries are isolated from modern energy technologies, millions of Africans pay close to the world’s highest prices for energy. These prices can reach as high as US $10/kWh on lighting alone, which is approximately 100 times the amount spent in the United States (US $0.12/kWh). The rich also suffer from energy-related problems. African countries with an access to electricity, such as in South Africa, are often plagued by problems caused by aging infrastructure. With half of sub-Saharan’s installed power, South Africa still suffers from huge blackouts.
The international community is aiming to archive universal access to modern energy by 2030. However, Sub-Saharan Africa has given little indication that it is on track to achieve the goal of providing universal access by 2030. The Africa Progress Report provides an estimate in this regard, stating that with current progress Africa will not have universal access until 2080. Despite this prediction, African leaders refuse to be pessimistic about the energy future.
“Financing, political will and effort are not fixed parameters; they can be changed through strong political leadership and effective international cooperation,” stated the African Progress Report.
Regardless of its performance pursuing challenging energy goals, the question remains, what could fuel Africa to achieve a universal access to electricity? According to BP, fossil fuel deposits are distributed extremely unevenly across the continent. For example, 90% of all African gas reserves exist in 4 countries and 97% of African coal reserves reside in only 2 countries. Additionally hydro power is similarly of limited potential due to an uneven distribution of water resources. With approximately 300 days of bright sunlight per in year in the region and irradiance levels twice the average of countries such as Germany, modern solar renewables remain the most promising solution for every African country.
There is no shortage of case studies that African countries might utilize. India offers insightful examples of providing basic access to modern energy services with renewables. Indian government extends household solar projects with massive subsidies, allowing every home to run two light bulbs, a solar cooker, and a television. Africans might look to Bangladesh for further example. With an income level per capita five times lower than that of Angola, Bangladesh has a far higher level of access to electricity (55% versus 35%). According to the Renewables 2015 Global Status Report, in 2015 alone installations of home solar systems in Bangladesh increased to 3.8 million units, expanding employment in the sector to 115,000 jobs. African political leaders might find great success following the leads of India and Bangladesh, leapfrogging traditional physical energy infrastructure by focusing in on individual access to electricity using modern technologies.