Electrify Africa and Save Hundreds of Millions of Lives

1 July 2014


Since 1990, 650 million Chinese have been lifted out of poverty, infant mortality has been reduced by 70%, and life expectancy has increased six years - a historic evolution powered by coal, and what the IEA has referred to as an "example" for other developing nations. Africa needs more electricity, more coal, more gas, more nuclear, more renewables.

The Sub-Saharan region, with a population of 910 million people, uses less electricity per year (145 TWh) than the state of Alabama (155 TWh) with just 4.8 million. There is only enough electricity generated in Sub-Sahara to power one light bulb per person for three hours a day. Over 65% of the population lives without any electricity at all.

The consequences of this scale of electricity deprivation are, in the words of Fatih Birol, Chief Economist at the IEA, "unacceptable." Of the 25 nations at the bottom of the U.N. Human Development Index, 24 are in Africa. Africa confronts rapid population growth, extreme poverty, high illiteracy rates, malnutrition, inadequate water supply, poor sanitation, and bad health.

It is a bleak and dismal tale: in Nigeria, 80% of 175 million people live below the international poverty line of $2 a day. Life expectancy in Chad is just 50 years, equal to that of the U.S. in 1910. In Somalia, the Infant Mortality Rate, perhaps the best indicator of modernity, is 100 or 10%, compared to 3 (0.3%) in France. In South Darfur, women walk up to seven hours per day to collect fuelwood, making mothers and their daughters highly susceptible to robbery, violence, and rape.

Over 700 million Africans use rudimentary stoves to burn wood, coal, charcoal and animal dung, releasing dense black soot into their homes and the environment. Annual deaths from this household air pollution exceed 600,000 per year. This gathering and burning of wood and other biomass leads to deforestation, erosion, land degradation and contaminated water.

Despite these debilitating conditions, much of the outside world insists that Africa must focus longer-term issues, and essentially ignore the plight of the current generation.

Many Westerners criticized the World Bank's $3.8 billion loan to help build a coal power plant in South Africa, even though the Medupi plant would help stabilize the electricity grid in poverty-stricken surrounding countries as well.

And last year, the U.S. announced sharp restrictions on government financing for new coal plants overseas, even though coal has been the basis of the world's electric power system since its inception.

The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development ha s taken a similar stance in its opposition to coal - the world's most affordable and reliable electric power source. In essence, climate change is strengthening its grip on discourse and essentially making energy poverty an afterthought.

From 2011-2030, the IEA projects that the number of Sub-Saharan Africans without access to electricity will increase by 8% to 645 million - another Kenya's worth of people toiling grimly in the dark. Other electricity-deprived regions are expected to dramatically improve their situation, largely through coal.

The U.S. Power Africa initiative to double access in Sub-Saharan Africa would still leave residents using just 240 kWh a year, compared to 6,300 kWh in the EU and 13,500 kWh in the U.S.

The Importance of Fossil Fuels
With fossil fuels expected to produce over 70% of Africa's electricity in 2035 it is important to examine the reasons why CO2 is emitted in the first place. CO2 emissions are the inevitable by-product of combusting fossil fuels, the foundation of the global energy economy.

Today, the emergence of China and India demonstrates how available, reliable, and affordable energy is the linchpin to more people living better and living longer. South Africa is leveraging 35 billion tons of coal to generate 40 times more electricity and make seven times more in real GDP/capita than the rest of Sub-Saharan Africa.

Renewable energy cannot be Africa's main power option, but must be part of a suite of energy solutions. Wind and solar energy, for instance, are naturally intermittent and have low capacity factors.

Such inherent technical limitations mean higher electricity prices and reduced reliability, as power systems require a steady and balanced source of energy at all times. In Africa and developing nations, high electricity prices wreak havoc since populations have almost no economic capacity to cope.

The danger of limiting Africa's focus to renewable energy is that these sources are struggling to penetrate the world's most advanced and well-financed energy economies. By 2035, IEA's World Energy Model's optimistic New Policies scenario, which takes account of pledges to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and plans to phase out fossil energy subsidies, projects that wind and solar will constitute just 15% of the OECD's power and 5% of its energy supply.

African nations require full access to the very same diverse range of fuels that has empowered their industrialized counterparts to raise the living standards for, and exten d the lives of, billions of people. For example, in the fossil fuel-era since the 1850s, real U.S. GDP/capita has increased nearly 25-fold and life expectancy extended 36 years to 79.

Looking forward, funders of energy projects in developing nations should realize that the scientific and engineering community has now turned its creative gaze to the management of CO2. Technological progress will increasingly offer us the faculty to employ fossil fuels differently tomorrow than we do today.

For electricity, the World Energy Council reports that highly efficient modern coal plants emit almost 40% less CO2 than the average coal plant now installed and near zero emissions will eventually be reached through carbon capture, utilization and storage (CCUS).

Thus, picking energy winners and losers with policies designed to punish some and reward others could almost certainly mean not deploying the cheapest and lowest carbon technologies.

Original article by Jude Clemente

Categories: Energy

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