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African Energy: Getting the Right Combination

 6 min read / 

More than 2,000 energy experts are to descend on Copenhagen this month for the African Energy Forum, where they will try to find an answer to powering a continent where two-thirds of the population – roughly 600m people – still lack access to energy. In fact, the number is projected to increase due to population growth. As such, finding the right energy mix will be key if Africa ever hopes to bridge the energy gap – a vital precondition for meeting the rest of its sustainable development goals.

Old Methods

While many commentators have hailed the potential offered by wind, solar, hydro, and other renewables, at this point these energy sources are still too expensive and unreliable for the continent to depend on them to bring power to more than half a billion people.

However, the latest report by Kofi Annan’s Africa Progress Panel outlines one possible solution. It recommends that African governments rely on a base of on-grid solutions, supplemented by mini-grid and off-grid power sources, to light up the continent. Discussing the findings, Annan emphasised that because of the prohibitively high cost of transitioning to renewables in the short term, governments should “harness every available energy option,” including endowments of coal and other fossil fuels, “so that no one is left behind.”

While many would dismiss coal as a solution, given its reputation, the reality is that Sub-Saharan Africa only accounts for 2% of global CO2 emissions but has 18% of the population. Compared to a per capita electricity consumption of 12,185kWh in the US, a Senegalese resident uses just 162kWh, an average Kenyan 136kWh, and a Tanzanian just 68.5kWh. Total grid-connected power generation in Sub-Saharan Africa’s 48 countries was a stunning 83GW in 2012, with 14 nations having grids smaller than 100MW.

To bring their economies up to speed, they will need to rely at least in part on the same energy sources that developed countries have used.

Alternative Solutions

But there is a way for Africa to thread the needle and leverage its energy resources without causing emissions to balloon.

Clean coal technology, including carbon capture and conversion methods that are already used successfully in developing countries like India, provides a way for Africa to bridge the power gap and lay the foundations for a low-carbon energy future.

Already, African governments are leveraging untapped coal resources to boost energy capacity. In Kenya, the government is building a $2bn coal-fired power plant as part of a plan to double the country’s energy capacity, boost power for industries, and provide new jobs in a country where the unemployment rate among young people stands at 20%.

Meanwhile, neighbouring Tanzania – estimated to have the largest coal reserves in East Africa – plans to build its first coal-fired power plant to help bring electricity to the 85% of citizens that lack access to the grid. Outside investors have also been involved in African countries’ efforts to make use of their energy resources.

In West Africa, the African Development Bank recently reached agreements to help finance two new coal-fired plants. For instance, a new AfDB-funded plant in Senegal aims to supply up to 40% of the country’s electricity, supplanting the dirtier diesel fuel that had been used before. Further south, Botswana is home to considerable but largely untapped coal reserves at an estimated 212bn tonnes. Last month, the government gave approval for a new coal power plant that will help supply power to neighbouring countries like Zambia.

Meanwhile, other nations have long relied on their fossil fuel reserves to drive their development. It is no coincidence that South Africa, the economic powerhouse of the continent, relies on coal for 75% of energy production – a proportion that dwarves that of neighbouring nations. While the country’s dependence on coal has raised environmental concerns, on the flip side, South Africa is now in a significantly better position to invest in some of the latest developments in clean coal technology.

India’s Example

India offers a useful model for other rapidly developing nations like these, which still need to rely on coal reserves to power their economy but are looking for ways to reduce emissions in the long-term. Prime Minister Modi’s government, elected in 2014 partly on a promise to bring electricity to the 240m Indians still lacking power, initially suffered a few tumbles.

For example, although the government has reached 77% of its target to connect villages to the power grids, it’s only met 14% of its goal for villages designated for off-grid power sources like solar. Part of the issue is that the ease of transporting and setting up solar panels makes them much easier to steal. At the same time, the government is reluctant to rely on highly polluting traditional coal-fired plants to power the future.

Faced with the shortcomings of both solar and old-fashioned coal plants, the government has been making progress with other energy options. As part of its goal to generate at least 24% of energy production from clean coal by 2022, in March the government announced a plan to phase out all power plants more than 25 years old and convert them into “super critical” plants.

The government has also started to subsidise research and development into clean coal technology, and there have already been some promising breakthroughs on this front. Earlier this year, an Indian firm in Tuticorin successfully captured carbon from its coal-powered boiler to make baking soda. The technique works without subsidies, an important development for a technology that has often been ignored due to high costs.

This kind of technology could be a game-changer for African countries facing the same question: how to affordably, sustainably bring power to millions of people still lacking access, many in rural areas?

The Way Forward

Kofi Annan himself has already recommended that Africa harness every available resource, including fossil fuels, to achieve the critical goal of powering the continent. And India points the way towards how governments can achieve this without causing devastating pollution. So for attendees at the upcoming forum, the potential offered by clean coal technology should be a central part of the discussion.

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