Challenge Africa – a continent facing a power revolution

With rapid population growth, spiralling power demand and the need to manage distributed energy, can Africa meet its energy challenges?

In an article by writer and analyst Claire Volkwyn, the African energy landscape looks gloomy with glimpses of bright opportunities.  Most of all, it is clear that the continent faces similar challenges to most national, regional and global energy networks, but may be overwhelmed with how to prioritise key elements of energy demand and distribution.

Capacity complexity

Volkwyn’s analysis highlights the current state of Africa’s generation capacity, noting that since the 1970s/80s, population growth and energy demand has gradually outstripped demand to the point where some countries are facing energy crises.  She states that, as a continent, Africa needs to install 7,000MW of new power generation annually to meet an anticipated 10-fold growth in demand by 2065.

While South Africa’s 58K MW capacity (generated by Eskom) has reduced by nearly nine percent in the past 11 years – due to a combination of life-cycle and maintenance issues – it remains Africa’s highest generator. Other countries provide dramatically less output, such as Chad at 125MW and South Sudan at 130MW at the opposite end of the spectrum. Where installed capacity is higher – such as Nigeria (12.5K MW) – actual available energy is far below the capacity. Volkwyn states that only some 3K MW can be dispatched daily in Nigeria most of the time.

Based on World Bank 2019 figures, the likes of South Sudan (6.7% of population) Chad (8.4% of population) and Burundi (11%) are not only at the bottom of the list of African nations providing access to electricity, but at the bottom of the global charts. Volkwyn estimates around 600m people are without electricity across the continent and highlights the World Bank’s direct correlation between access to electricity and economic growth, health, education, food security and livelihoods.

Climate pressure

As Volkwyn notes, the COP26 Summit to be held at the end of this year is only likely to add further pressure to the African content in relation to clean energy strategies and the transition away from coal-powered generation.  Theoretically, this transition should be pushing against an open door for the consumers. According to Volkwyn, solar energy – particularly in rural areas – has been in use for many years, with a drive for urban distributed energy now well underway.

However, as with almost everywhere else around the world, the challenge is how distributed energy is managed. For Africa, this not only involves the technology required to monitor and manage grids which Volkwyn estimates is between five and ten years away from digitisation, but also requires political will and a change in mindset of utility providers.

Certainly, when it comes to the use of new technologies, there is an understanding and desire for implementation, as highlighted by Fundamentals’ own Abu Jalloh and Elizabeth Macharia in recent articles on their roles in product development and personal experiences of Africa’s power networks.

Politics and priorities

According to Volkwyn, the greater barriers to rapid change are more likely to be a lack of clarity on policy and regulation.  More significantly, there is the task of convincing the continent’s utilities providers that, far from being a threat to their influence and profitability, renewable and distributed energy systems could be a positive catalyst for energy and economic growth for individual consumers and their nations as a whole.  This is certainly a lesson that has been learnt in South Australia.

As Volkwyn points out, arguably the greatest challenge will be how to prioritise the issues Africa faces over the next decade in meeting its energy demand.