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The Economist Discusses the Dark Continent

August 27, 2007


Earlier this month I wrote a post about power generation problems across the African continent [Africa Remains the Dark Continent — Literally]. That post was prompted by a New York Times article by Michael Wines. The Economist has now weighed with an article of its own [“The dark continent,” 18-24 August 2007]. When I wrote about the dark continent being literally dark, I was thinking about how the continent looks from space at night. The Economist article is accompanied by a great picture that makes that point quite plainly. The article begins by describing what the camera sees:

“Seen from space, Africa at night is unlit—as dark as all-but empty Siberia. With nearly 1 billion people, Africa accounts for over a sixth of the world’s population, but generates only 4% of global electricity. Three-quarters of that is used by South Africa, Egypt and the other countries along the north African littoral. The need for more power stations in the rest of the continent has long been recognised, but most of the attempts at electrification in the 1970s and the 1980s failed.”

As I noted in my previous post, development requires, in addition to security, access to reliable electrical power. The sub-title of the Economist article says it all. “Power shortages have become one of the biggest brakes on development” in Africa. The article covers much of the same territory as Wines’ New York Times’ article (that is, reviewing the lack of progress in generating power and the reasons for it).

“In some countries, dictators pillaged power stations for parts and fuel. In others, power stations were built but not maintained. Turbines were run at full capacity until they broke, then were abandoned. By some counts, only 17 of Nigeria’s 79 power stations, many dating from this period, are still working; the country’s demand for power is an estimated 7,600 megawatts, against an actual operating capacity of 3,500MW. The World Bank reckons that 500m sub-Saharan Africans are without what it calls ‘modern energy’. The situation is bound to get worse as the demand for power continues to grow.”

Leaders in developed countries meet together and agree that they want to see African economies strengthen, but as long as power shortages serve as an anchor keeping them at the bottom of the pyramid there will be no economic tide that can help these countries rise.

“For now, the continent remains largely dependent on hydropower: 13 countries use it for 60% or more of their energy. But Africa’s rain falls more variably than, say, Norway’s, and its dams often operate below capacity. Still, many new dams are being planned. Ethiopia has staked its development on damming the Blue Nile and other rivers. In west Africa dams are due to be built on the Niger, the Volta and Bandama. Some of these projects will be held up by financial and environmental disputes, just as Uganda’s 250MW Bujagali dam on the White Nile has been. But most will get built.”

Like Wines’ earlier article, the Economist article singles out Nigeria because it has the continent’s largest population and, therefore, its greatest energy needs. The country, however, that could answer many of the continent’s power requirements is the Democratic Republic of the Congo. That answer comes in the form of the Congo River. The river’s energy remains untapped because of nagging instability in the region. Stability is the bedrock upon which development efforts must build and the Congo, like many surrounding countries, is currently trying to build on the sandy soil of instability. The article notes:

“The river with the biggest hydro potential is the Congo. The potential demand, too, is huge. Only 6% of Congolese have access to electricity and more power will be needed to get at the country’s trove of minerals. A grand project to build a series of dams along the Congo’s fast-flowing stretches could theoretically supply 39,000MW, enough to power the entire continent. But that will probably remain a dream. Congo has a terrible reputation among investors, and distributing the electricity across thousands of kilometres, much of it jungle, would pose formidable problems.”

Those who understand that Africa needs electrical power to progress are hoping that it primarily develops alternative (i.e., non-carbon-based) sources of energy to power its generation plants. The article reports that coal and natural gas nevertheless remain candidate power sources. There are other efforts, however, that could make an impact and they are backed by the World Bank.

“Many African governments are looking at alternative sources of energy to make up their projected shortfalls. Hydropower is clean, from the point of view of greenhouse-gas emissions, but most of the easy alternatives, notably coal, are dirty. Donors committed to cutting global carbon emissions are unlikely to favour more dirty coal-fired power stations of the sort that predominate in South Africa, although the government there claims that it wants to clean them up. Some fossil fuels, however, are less damaging than coal. A pipeline planned for west Africa, which will carry gas that is now flared off in oilfields, could stabilise electricity supply in coastal cities. Few Africans in rural areas have access to electricity. Connecting them to national grids will be slow and expensive. Yet Lilliputian windmills, water mills, solar panels and biomass furnaces could have a big collective impact. The cost of lighting a shack takes 10% of income in the poorest households and the kerosene lamps are highly polluting. In response, the World Bank has rolled out ‘Lighting Africa’, an ambitious effort to get 250m of the poorest Africans on clean-energy lighting by 2030. Talk of the mass production of biofuels in Africa is premature, but advances have been made. Some investors are backing jatropha, a plant whose seeds produce an oil for burning in generators. There is also an effort to tap geothermal energy. The Great Rift Valley, from Eritrea to Mozambique, could produce 7,000MW. Kenya hopes to get 20% of its energy from geothermal sources by 2017. Engineers think they can also use the steady winds in Africa’s mountain ranges for power production. And if the costs of using the sun’s warmth can be reduced to 30% below its present cost, vast solar farms could offer cheap, clean energy for African cities and in doing so boost incomes in rural areas. Egypt, which relies mostly on natural gas, is looking hard at solar power. Other remedies for Africa’s power shortages are more familiar but just as urgent: more efficient appliances, such as LED lighting, more deregulation, better use of existing resources by, for instance, improving the quality of power lines, and pooling power into regional grids. Otherwise Africa will remain in the dark.”

If there is ever going to be a place where alternative fuels can prove their worth, it will be in Africa. As both Wines and the Economist make plain, the continent is a vast blank landscape that has resources, people in need, and little infrastructure. Since most African states are going to need help to develop their infrastructure, visionary leaders and resourceful groups should seize the opportunity to demonstrate how power generation’s future should unfold. Africa has nearly every landscape, almost every climate, and just about every challenge that could be faced elsewhere; making it a great testbed for new technologies. Working together development groups could set the course for the rest of the world. Africa could be a model instead of an afterthought. This will not be easy, cheap, and/or quick, but the effort seems worth it.

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