Africa Remains the Dark Continent — Literally

Stephen DeAngelis

August 14, 2007

Most of the world welcomed the news that the United Nations Security Council voted to send 26,000 peacekeepers to the Darfur region of Sudan. Hopefully, this action will bring a halt to the genocide that has plagued that region. Other news, however, reminds us that most African states suffer numerous other challenges — including the lack of critical infrastructure [“Toiling in the Dark: Africa’s Power Crisis,” by Michael Wines, New York Times, 29 July 2007]. Development requires, above all, access to reliable electrical power. Much of the discontent in Iraq and Afghanistan is generated by the lack of reliable electrical power. Those same frustrations are felt throughout Africa, even in states not engulfed in conflict. Wines’ article begins with the story of a Zambian farmer:

“It is not that Jacob Mwale minds irrigating the 11 acres of land he farms just east of Lusaka, Zambia’s capital. It is irrigating his 11 acres in the dead of night that angers him. Two or three times a week, the Mwale farm abruptly loses power, like the homes and businesses of some of Zambia’s 300,000 other electricity users. When the power returns, sometimes late in the evening, Mr. Mwale’s farmhands work overtime, watering the fields by moonlight. ‘If they shut down the whole day, I have to work nights, and pay extra,’ Mr. Mwale, 39, grumbled. ‘It’s killing us.’ Power blackouts — ‘load shedding,’ in utility jargon — are hardly novel in sub-Saharan Africa, where many electricity grids remain chewing-gum-and-baling-wire affairs. Even so, this year is different. Perhaps 25 of the 44 sub-Saharan nations face crippling electricity shortages, a power crisis that some experts call unprecedented.”

Most large businesses (and wealthy individuals) in developing countries can afford to buy and operate their own generators; sparing themselves from the vagaries of publicly available electrical grids, if such grids exist at all. According to Wines, the causes of Africa’s power crisis are numerable.

“The causes are manifold: strong economic growth in some places, economic collapse in others, war, poor planning, population booms, high oil prices and drought have combined to leave both industry and residents short of power when many need it most. ‘We’ve had no significant capital injection into generation and transmission, from either the private or public sectors, for 15, maybe 20 years,’ said Lawrence Musaba, the manager of the Southern African Power Pool, a 12-nation consortium of electricity utilities at the continent’s tip. The implications go beyond candlelight suppers and extra blankets on beds. The lack of reliable power has already begun to hamper the region’s development, clipping more than 2 percent off the annual growth rates of the worst-hit African economies, according to the World Bank.”

All developed countries had to develop electrical grids at some point. Often the infrastructure was put in place by the government itself or by a utility granted a monopoly on the system. This doesn’t happen in undeveloped countries because governments can’t afford to build the infrstructure and private utility companies see little chance of getting a decent return on investment. Building and maintaining electrical grids is expensive. Even in the United States, getting utilities to invest in the grid is difficult and shortages have been predicted [see my post on The Coming Black Outs]. If it is difficult for the U.S. to keep up, you can imagine the challenges facing African nations.

“Some nations, like Ghana, have tried to deal with their power crises by leasing huge teams of gas generators, producing emergency power at exorbitant rates until power plants can be built. In Nigeria, Angola and some other nations, virtually all businesses and many residents run private generators to supplement faltering public service, saddling economies with added costs and worsening pollution. … In normal times, South Africa’s muscular chain of power plants fills the gaps of its neighbors. But South Africa now could experience up to seven years of its own electricity shortages. Rolling blackouts blanketed parts of the country in January, and sporadic power failures have persisted since. The gravity of this year’s shortage is all the more apparent considering how little electricity sub-Saharan Africa has to begin with. Excluding South Africa, whose economy and power consumption dwarf other nations’, the region’s remaining 700 million citizens have access to roughly as much electricity as do the 38 million citizens of Poland. Much goes to industry: a single aluminum smelter near Mozambique’s capital, Maputo, gobbles four times as much power as the entire rest of Mozambique. On average, the World Bank says, fewer than one in four sub-Saharan Africans are hooked to national electricity grids. Moreover, some grids are so poorly maintained that electricity suppliers get paid for as little as 60 percent of the power they generate. The rest is either stolen or lost in ill-maintained networks. For decades, the region had enough generating capacity — and few enough customers — to tolerate such waste. No more: sub-Saharan nations are adding about a thousand megawatts of generating capacity each year, World Bank experts say, but need up to twice that to keep pace with demand.”

In his article, Wines addresses South Africa’s woes but points out that it is relatively well off compared to other Africa nations, especially the continent’s most populous state, Nigeria.

“Only 19 of 79 [Nigerian] power plants work, the government said in April. Daily electricity output has plunged 60 percent from its peak, and blackouts cost the economy $1 billion a year, the Council for Renewable Energy in Nigeria says. Poor management is but one problem. War has devastated the power grid in Congo, in Africa’s heart, and stalled plans to develop its vast hydroelectric potential. In Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and parts of West Africa, drought has shrunk rivers and slashed the generating capacity of hydroelectric dams. Drought in Ghana, for example, has crippled gold and aluminum production and set off blackouts in Togo and Benin, which buy power from Ghana. Once a major power exporter, Uganda now blacks out parts of its capital, Kampala, for as much as a day at a time and has leased two 50-megawatt generators, burning diesel at a time of record oil prices. The demand for hydropower in Uganda and its neighbors, with drought, is blamed by some for a steady reduction in the water level of Lake Victoria, Africa’s largest. Uganda’s gas stations are now short of diesel for vehicles — in part, paradoxically, because power shortages are shutting down a pipeline from Kenya. News reports say the nation has spent enough on diesel-fueled power generation to build two hydroelectric dams. Zambia, where power to customers like Mr. Mwale is rationed almost every day, is a template for such problems. Barely 20 percent of households are wired for power — only 3 percent in rural areas — but the Zambia Electricity Supply Company, known as Zesco, is signing up 10,000 new customers a year, said Christopher Nthala, the utility’s transmission director.”

There are some attempts being made to address these shortages.

“The World Bank says its financing of power projects in sub-Saharan Africa is ballooning, from $250 million five years ago to $660 million last year to $1 billion in 2007. But many plans remain just that. Issues like creditworthiness, lax regulation, domestic politics and the sheer difficulty of sending power over rundown grids to the customer make outside investments in power stations tougher than they appear, said Tore Horvei, the chief operating officer of CIC Energy Corporation, which is based in South Africa. The best answer, most experts consulted agree, would be for nations to cooperate on regional power solutions. One or two large regional plants, they say, could supply power more cheaply and efficiently than dozens of smaller ones. But while that may be logical, Mr. Horvei said, ‘it’s very challenging in practice to do so.’ … There is an alternative: saving energy. Namibia plans a wind farm on its southern coast, while in South Africa, Eskom has handed out five million fluorescent bulbs and 140,000 insulating blankets for water heaters, and has paid industrial customers to switch off equipment during periods of high demand.”

Saving energy can only increase capacity so much (and certainly not enough to support the development needed to bring Africa’s millions out of poverty). As I have noted in other blogs, one thing that most African countries have in abundance is sunlight. With shortages of carbon fuel and water to power electrical plants, I predict that these countries will eventually turn to solar power to generate most of their electrical requirements. It is not only the shortage of fuel that leads me to this assessment it is also the fact that solar panels do not require an extensive grid to distribute electricity. Homes, villages, and local regions can develop independent electrical distribution systems that can supply clean electricity where and when it is needed. Associated Press writer Aidan Lewis reports that Algeria may be the first African country to seriously consider solar energy [“After Oil and Gas, Sahara Sunshine?Boston Globe, 11 August 2007].

“It’s a vision that has long enticed energy planners: solar panels stretching out over vast swaths of the Sahara desert, soaking up sun to generate clean, green power. Now Algeria, aware that its oil and gas riches will one day run dry, is gearing up to tap its sunshine on an industrial scale for itself and even Europe. Work on its first plant began late last month at Hassi R’mel, 260 miles south of Algiers, the capital. The plant will be a hybrid, using both sun and natural gas to generate 150 megawatts. Of that, 25 megawatts will come from giant parabolic mirrors stretching over nearly 2 million square feet — roughly 45 football fields. Experts say it’s the first project of its kind to combine gas and steam turbines with solar thermal input in a hybrid plant. The plant should be ready in 2010, and the longer-term goal is to export 6,000 megawatts of solar-generated power to Europe by 2020, about a tenth of current electricity consumption in Germany. … The project is still at an early stage and faces daunting financial and technological obstacles. Solar power’s supporters say it will take 10 years for it to become economically competitive, and while undersea cables to Sicily and Spain are planned for construction in 2010-2012, it isn’t known who will finance them. But as the world grows increasingly anxious about climate change and dwindling fossil fuels, ideas that once sounded like science fiction are becoming ever more plausible. … Algeria seems an obvious source of solar power. Africa’s second largest country is more than four-fifths desert, with enough sunshine to meet Western Europe’s needs 60 times over, according to estimates cited by Algeria’s energy ministry.”

If these areas can produce excess power, it may then be profitable for a utility to invest in a larger grid system. Solar power generation could, in fact, become a profitable venture for some very impoverished areas. Although big strides are being made in solar power generation, more research is needed before this vision can be realized. There are going to be no easy answers for turning the lights on all over the dark continent, but every avenue needs to be pursued.