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Poverty and Progress: An Update on African Energy

In an era when such futuristic technologies as artificial intelligence, robotics, and quantum computing are here or on the horizon, almost half of sub-Saharan Africans — more than 600 million people — lack the electricity to heat, cool, or light their homes.

By NJ Ayuk, Executive Chairman, African Energy Chamber

In an era when such futuristic technologies as artificial intelligence, robotics, and quantum computing are here or on the horizon, almost half of sub-Saharan Africans — more than 600 million people — lack the electricity to heat, cool, or light their homes.

This energy poverty impedes nearly every aspect of life for this population, from conducting business and educating their children to deterring crime and providing healthcare.

Even in some well-electrified Africannations such as Ghana, Gabon, and South Africa, the supply is inadequate and often unavailable.

As the African Energy Chamber (AEC) put it in our newly released The State of African Energy Outlook Report 2024, “Access to electricity in Africa is still a dream to millions of Africans.”

Our report gives compelling evidence to back this statement, providing statistics that show, among other things, that energy poverty is markedly deeper in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) than in the rest of the continent.

Our report is sobering, but not without hope. It also provides a positive look toward the future, including energy developments likely to improve electrification rates in SSA and move its countries’ citizens closer to the universal access they dream of. The key to delivering energy to more Africans will be using both renewables and fossil fuels.

The Statistics and What’s Behind Them

Our report’s numbers tell the story of just how much SSA, in particular, is still affected by energy poverty.

In contrast with most of the world, where electrification rates improved during the COVID-19 pandemic, SSA’s worsened, as its percentage of the world’s population lacking electricity grew from 71% in 2018 to 77% in 2020.  Statistics compiled in 2020 showed sub-20% levels of electricity access in up to eight countries across the region.

While the education and business sectors suffer greatly from energy poverty, it is perhaps most acutely felt in the health sector, where medical equipment and procedures require electrical power.

Complicating the health impacts still further, households without electricity are often forced to use unhealthy fuels like wood, coal, or kerosene to cook and heat, producing indoor air pollution that leads to respiratory problems and other ailments.

In contrast to the 90%-plus electrification rate found in some North African countries, which is allowing them to decrease reliance on fossil fuels, electricity access in SSA is only about 55%, and a closer look at that number reveals it is driven by urban rates of close to 80%, while rural areas lag far behind with only about 33%, leaving two-thirds of residents in the dark.

In a nutshell, SSA has a lot of catching up to do to achieve the levels of access to electricity enjoyed by most of the world. Although the region has doubled the average rate of access since 2000, its current rate of just over half of the region’s population is minisculecompared to the 90% global rate and the 80% North African rate.

As I said, even in SSA countries where electrification rates are quite high, such as Ghana, Gabon, and South Africa, load shedding presents a daily practical problem for people who must anticipate power outages. In South Africa, for instance, this type of staged rationing has been used every day this year by the power utility, Eskom.

Already in 2023, there has been more load-shedding in South Africa than in all of 2022, and outages are lasting longer — up to 12 hours daily — with a predictable disabling effect on economic development.

Meanwhile, the country’s chasm between supply and demand only continues to expand.

Changes in Progress: South Africa as a Case in Point

The South African government is taking a proactive approach to the regulatory side of improving energy supply, shortening timelines for obtaining environmental authorizations and grid approvals.

It is also working to obtain and use USD98.7 billion in investment capital over the next five years for its Just Energy Transition Investment Plan (JETIP), a framework adopted in 2022 that outlines the country’s strategic priorities for investment during climate transition.

A major thrust of JETIP is replacing the use of coal, which currently supplies over 80% of South Africa’s power, with renewable energy, expected to grow from a current 11% of the power supply to 20% by the end of this decade and to over half of the supply by 2050.

Contributing to those numbers, Eskom-built renewables projects are slated to go live this year in Lethabo and Sere, and the utility will soon start building solar and battery storage facilities at Komati Lethabo and Majuba for a total of 2.8 gigawatts (GW) of new renewables capacity.

Of the total projected electricity capacity, solar, and wind are expected to drive almost 50% with fossil fuels adding up to a 10th of total projected capacity.

Implications for the Continent

These power-related statistics for South Africa—a country better positioned than many Sub-Saharan nations regarding electricity—show that the country, and therefore the continent, needs gas-to-power and battery storage along with wind and solar.

South Africa’s numbers highlight a major point made in my recent book, “A Just Transition: Making Energy Poverty History with an Energy Mix,” — that, while the rest of the globe deals with the threat of devastating climate change, Africa must deal with two major challenges at once: the threat of climate change and debilitating energy poverty.  

Even as Africa works to support global efforts to prevent a climate crisis, we must embrace every solution available to us, including using our continent’s vast natural gas reserves: totaling more than 800 trillion cubic feet. Not only is gas plentiful, but it’s also the cleanest fossil fuel; producing it contributes to job creation and economic growth; and it can be monetized to help pay for energy infrastructure.

The “bottom line” is that Africa still needs to use its natural gas, and more of it, to deliver a much-needed increased supply of energy to its people.

Download The State of African Energy 2024 Outlook report:

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