Energy poverty is back on the global agenda and Africa is the front line. The International Energy Agency (IEA) just released their annual World Energy Outlook with a special report on the African energy sector. The analysis takes a much-needed, realistic stock of both the paucity and potential of energy in Africa. Brad Plumer at Vox.com has a great overview (for those who’d prefer the TL; DR version). Here are a few of our takeaways:
- Africa is the only region where the number of people without access to electricity is increasing. Last year, IEA reported 600 million Africans living without electricity; now, it estimates that number has grown to 620 million. Population growth (particularly in rural areas) is outpacing the efforts from governments and investors to increase capacity. While adding 10 GW or even 30 GW of generation, as per the White House’s Power Africa Initiative, is an important start, it still won’t be even close to enough to meet demand, now or in the future. We’ll need an even bigger push.
- Sorry, but natural gas and large-scale hydro are still the most efficient. As Plumer writes in his post, one of the IEA’s main highlights is that meeting Africa’s energy needs will require utilizing the continent’s most abundant, cost-effective resources—which right now are still (!) natural gas and big hydroelectric dams. Gas and hydro are, by IEA estimates, three times cheaper per MWh than large-scale photo voltaic (PV) solar.
- The big low-hanging fruit for increasing access is probably boring old on-grid connections. IEA forecasts that more than two-thirds of new access will come from on-grid solutions, mostly urban but also some rural. Our colleagues Ben Leo, Vijaya Ramachandran, and Rob Morello just estimated that up to 95 million people in Nigeria, Tanzania, Ghana, Liberia, and Kenya (5 of the 6 Power Africa focus countries) live in areas where the grid already exists, yet they just aren’t connected. This fits with new analysis from scholars at UC-Berkeley (PDF) which shows huge numbers of unconnected Kenyans live “under the grid”—or within 200 meters of a power line.
- Renewables are becoming more competitive, yet much more R&D is necessary to make them cheap enough for widespread use. Improvements in small-scale solar, wind, and hydro technologies and markets have made them cost-effective candidates for many areas beyond concentrated populations. But it’s largely because the comparison with expensive diesel generators sets such a low bar. But if non-hydro renewables are going to be a major facet of Africa’s energy portfolio—as IEA predicts they could be—we will need to channel far more investment into developing new and scalable solutions.
- “Modern energy” is nothing of the sort. The big disappointment with the IEA report is their persistence with absurdly low definitions of “modern energy access” (50 kWh/person/year in rural areas and 100 kWh/person/year in urban areas). This much electricity won’t run much more than a few light bulbs and is equivalent to what an average American uses in about 3 days. These low thresholds are not only unrealistic, but they could push policymakers toward wholly inadequate decisions. (If your target is just 50kWh/yr, then why not give out solar lamps instead of building power plants?) This is an issue that CGD will be looking at more closely and, we hope, so too will the IEA.
CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.