African national grid challenges

A panorama of Johannesburg at sunrise looking east across the M1 highway. Source: wikipedia

The reason to choose device over grid is not only the pulling effect of opportunity of off-grid solar technologies in African countries. Also the immense challenges national governments are struggling with, pushes us toward smarter and viable technological solutions. With growing populations and growing demands already on their way for several years now, there have been some governmental initiatives in multiple African countries, however until now these efforts have not been sufficient.

“The potential market across sub-Saharan Africa is significant. Two-thirds of the region’s population – 620 million people – lacks access to energy. Until recently, efforts to tackle this energy gap focused on scaling up large power plants and the centralized grid. However, these efforts have largely benefited corporations and industrial customers, not individuals disconnected from the grid entirely.” Davies, October 19, 2015. This again shows that grid based solutions will not suffice, since it is too expensive for most African countries to expand their grid.

The governmental challenge here is threefold. Not only do many countries need to drastically update their existing electricity grids, and continue to do so for the long run. Also they need to drastically raise their electricity production capacity to meet their country’s rising demand. The third and most difficult challenge is to expand the existing grid to reach those millions of citizens that are not connected yet. Even if they would make the investments to update their current national grids, there is also the challenge to keep up with the capacity that will be needed in the years to come. “The challenge lies not just in building new generating capacity, but in the transmission and distribution of electricity. The cost and difficulty of stringing power lines out to remote and low-income communities means grid extensions are often both too slow and uneconomic.” Davies, October 19, 2015.

The Africa Progress Panel adds to these enormous challenges also a notion that governance is not capable due to their role at the heart of this African energy crisis. Governance is not able to concern themselves with a secure energy future and affordable energy, because often utilities are seen by them as sites of political patronage and vehicles for corruption. Africa Progress Panel 2015. This statement makes me wonder whether governance is at all working on the grid challenges their countries are facing (generalizing all countries and governments). These national grid challenges that have been around for decades and are only becoming more costly and less manageable.

 

GRID CHALLENGES

 

  • invest in updating the current grid that is old and outdated
  • continuously raise capacity to meet the demand that is only growing
  • expand the grid to reach full market potential

 

These immense challenges push towards a trend of choosing device over grid. “In the absence of the hundreds of billions of dollars needed to build new power grids, more attention has been paid to innovative, green-friendly alternative forms of power.” Lynch, December 9, 2015. Put in all your capital in small scale, off-grid technology and get your money’s worth for sure. “This is a far better alternative to the multi-year, massive capex investments associated with traditional power plants.” Vergunst, October 7, 2015

 

Let’s briefly sum up the most important facts that need to be addressed when talking about energy challenges in African countries.

 

  • An enormous amount of people with no access to electricity; up to 600 million people have no access to the electric grid;
  • Another large amount of people with no access to secure electricity; the 600 million excludes the millions who do have access, but supply is very irregular;
  • Annual usage is much less than the world average: 600 kWh, compared with the world average of 3,064 kWh.
  • The current state of the national electricity grids makes it impossible to offer a grid-based solution for the electricity issues. It is too expensive to update the grids.

 

The social and economic implications of these figures are quite severe. The actual difference between having and not having access to [regular] electricity is unparalleled and influences all aspects of social and economic activities in each country. When you have no electricity it immediately sets back all health care and education opportunities. This is problematic by itself, but also causes tremendous economic costs. These costs are estimated up to 2-4 per cent of the national GDP’s and this leads to stagnation in job creation and investment.

It’s a negative spiral and the problem is only on the rise when you see that the demand for electricity is growing, while on the other hand the amount of people with no access to electricity is also growing. All in all these are some heavy facts about the current situation of the continent. But when it comes to solar energy technology and off-grid solutions, there is a lot of opportunity, especially in sub-Saharan Africa. “The opportunity is vast. When people talk about the 1.3 billion [worldwide estimates vary between 1 billion to 1.3 billion] people living without electricity, they often don’t realize that there are at least a billion more people with a grid connection that’s often expensive and unreliable. Those are customers also willing to invest in complementary solutions like solar.” Tweed, October 23, 2015.

Let’s make a positive interpretation of the presented facts above and focus on what’s possible and what is already happening in solar energy in Africa. The amount of people who are interested in solar alternatives is so big, meaning that we have an enormous market to cater to.

Many country examples of rising demand for electricity are a direct effect of the fact that African economies are growing. “Mozambique typifies other sub-Saharan African nations in its accelerating economic growth – 7 percent over the last 10 years. And, like the other sub-Saharan nations, it desperately needs more power to sustain that level of growth.” Davies,October 19, 2015. So the demand will definitely rise massively in the years to come. […]

These immense challenges national governments are struggling with, but more important the people are struggling with, pushes us toward smarter and viable technological solutions. And they are here, ready to install.

 

Recent country updates:

 

Op-Ed: No end in sight to Eskom delays in signing renewable energy PPAs, Chris Yelland, August 7, 2017

 

The landlocked African country of Zambia is to get “pay to own solar homes”. Energy Voice, August 2, 2017

 

Brief on Ghana’s island-based renewable energy mini grid systems, Frank Yeboah Dadzie, July 21, 2017

 

World Bank invests $50m in Rwanda off-grid renewables, Africa’s Power Journal, July 10, 2017

 

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