Developing “Climate Responsible” Power Infrastructure Across Africa

Jan 9, 2022

MCJ Climate Voices
By Bim Adisa

There are a number of critical factors when one considers Africa’s need for development. The continent has a rapidly growing population which is estimated to double by 2050. To alleviate poverty – which is a considerable challenge for the continent – there needs to be a significant amount of industrialization. Such industrialization cannot happen without a sizeable investment in infrastructure, specifically to provide reliable access to electricity. So, the question is, how can all of this be achieved while also considering probably the most pressing global issue of our time – climate change? Which by the way probably impacts Africa most disproportionately.

One of the first points which most people agree on is that developing power infrastructure across Africa should not be a copy-and-paste that simply mimics the path taken by other developed countries. For one, technology enables us to be more efficient from a climate perspective. We can do away with coal and better incorporate renewable sources of generation such as solar which are now at cost parity with fossil-based sources of generation. It is also prudent to have less centralization – more distributed/mini-grids.

There are however also some significant flaws with the current approach to Africa’s electrification, which in turn is having an adverse impact on tackling the effects of climate change. Because of the considerable amounts of investments required, current efforts to electrify Africa are largely driven by development agencies. Most of the power projects that are currently being financed in Africa are solar mini-grids, typically small (a few hundred kilowatts peak capacity), and often serving rural areas. While there is absolutely a need for these – there are ~600 million people in Africa with no access to electricity at all, and most live in rural areas – current policies and efforts largely ignore the segment of Africa’s population in urban areas. 

Approximately 400 million people currently live in Africa’s cities. But this population is expected to nearly triple to ~1.3bn by 2050. Just like in developed countries, these cities are the nerve centers of economic activity – most businesses are located in cities. And while most African cities have some access to electricity, reliability is a major challenge. The average daily supply of electricity in some of the continent’s largest cities is less than 10 hours, so the population makes up for the difference by running diesel generators (where they can afford it). This inefficiency serves both as an impediment to Africa’s growth, and also as a major contributor to pollution.   

The solution to Africa’s electrification must include a functional grid that serves its cities. And while it is often complex and messy, most cities have existing grid infrastructure that must form a part of the solution. More emphasis must be placed on the last mile distribution – ensuring power that is produced is effectively distributed all the way to end-users with minimum leakage. Achieving this requires indigenous solutions from local players that understand the challenges. On the other hand, ignoring this problem (to conveniently focus on rural mini-grids as is currently the case) would simply ensure continued pollution which would become an even more significant challenge over time with population growth and industrialization.

Personally, I hope that the momentum from events like the recent COP 26 would lead to a bolder approach when it comes to Africa. An approach that is based on innovative solutions that fit the context on the continent, not one that simply copies what has worked elsewhere (without context). It also presents an opportunity to engage the continent in a unique way, by enabling indigenous solutions to solve its own challenges and the challenge of our generation. 

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