Power blackouts are a common feature of life in many parts of Africa, where millions of people are trapped in energy poverty. There is a lack of access to a reliable source of energy to power their homes and businesses – yet Africa is endowed with vast natural resources.
According to the United Nations, the hydro-electric potential of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) alone is estimated to be enough to provide three times as much power as Africa currently consumes.
Hydroelectricity is by far the single biggest source of electricity in a number of countries, especially in Central and West Africa. The region possesses some of the largest water courses in the world, including the Nile, Congo, Niger, Volta and Zambezi river systems.
When it comes to fossil fuels, coal is still the cheapest source of power for Africa and the continent holds abundant reserves of about 50bn tons of the world’s 850bn tons of recoverable coal deposits. South Africa is one of the top 10 coal-producing nations in the world and 80 per cent of our power generation is coal fired. The development of cleaner technologies for coal-fired electricity generation is an opportunity for Africa to retire ageing power plants and replace them with energy-efficient coal-fired power plants.
In addition, Africa can lay claim to vast oil and gas reserves concentrated mainly in North and West Africa, Africa holds an estimated nine per cent of world oil reserves, with Libya, Nigeria, Angola and Algeria in the top 17 oil-rich countries.**
Africa is also well-placed to provide the raw materials for nuclear generation. South Africa, Namibia and Niger collectively have over 20 per cent of the world’s accessible uranium reserves – held by just 11 countries – for the provision of nuclear energy, while South Africa is one of the largest sources in the world for the rare earth mineral, thorium, now being advocated by the nuclear fraternity as an alternative to uranium.
Africa has no shortage of renewable and green resources either. As the sunniest continent on earth, there is enormous potential to exploit solar technologies – especially useful in remote and rural areas far national electricity grids.
Geothermal resources are to be found in the Red Sea Valley and the Rift Valley, while Africa’s agricultural land is another untapped resource that could potentially produce clean-burning biofuels such as ethanol. While food security remains a priority and planting crops for the production of biofuels remains controversial in light of the need for food crops, some African countries such as Senegal and Zambia have started cultivating fuel-bearing crops such as sugar, corn, maize and grasses as a sustainable source of energy.
But perhaps the greatest opportunity for Africa to power its economies is through integration. Various countries have different resources – oil, gas, hydro, coal – and diversifying the source of power generation increases stability. The African Development Bank has identified the pooling and exchange of energy resources as a major opportunity for Africa countries and is involved in a number of cross-border projects that benefit both producers rich in energy resources and neighboring energy-importing countries that need a reliable, affordable supply of electricity.
Energy without borders
According to the UN’s ‘Africa Renewal’ magazine, cross-border energy networks mean that countries with surplus power could run their stations at optimum output without risking oversupply, while countries with limited resources and capacity could access affordable power without building costly facilities. Power pooling also diversifies energy sources.
The gap between the provision of power in Africa versus the potential of the continent to meet its own energy needs by exploiting its vast natural resources is a huge anomaly. According to the IMF, in 2007 nearly two-thirds of countries in Africa experienced an acute energy crisis marked by frequent and extended blackouts. Only two per cent of Africa’s rural people are connected to national power grids, blackouts are routine in almost every country and the continent’s once-proud energy infrastructure is being crippled by lack of investment and maintenance.
Ongoing political instability and war are two of the main reasons that Africa fails to exploit the potential of its energy resources. Coupled with the resulting poverty and undermining of institutional capacity, countries have little resilience against drought and natural disasters that further undermine their infrastructure. Meanwhile, rapidly-growing and developing countries like China and India are exploiting Africa’s wealth of resources for their own commodity-driven economic development.
While the situation is changing for the better, the pace is still too slow to keep up with the projected growth in demand for energy from a burgeoning population with an annual urban growth rate twice as high as those of Asia and Latin America.
The fourth annual Africa Energy Indaba, to take place in February 2012, will continue explore solutions to Africa’s energy crisis under the banner of Building an Energy Future for Africa. Africa stands at the brink of an enormous opportunity to change the economic destiny of her people by harnessing the energy that lies beneath us, in the wind that blows through the trees, the rivers that flow through the land and the warmth of our abundant African sunshine – if we come together to make it happen.
Sources and Acknowledgements:
Energy Key to Africa’s Prosperity by Itai Madamombe, Africa Renewal, (a publication of the United Nations)
What Alternatives to Oil in Africa by Renatus Nji, Africa Renewal, (a publication of the United Nations)
* European Nuclear Society (ENS)
** US Energy Information Administration (EIA)