Power Shortages Hold Africa Back In Unlikely Ways, But There Is Hope In The Good Old Sun

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POWER is one of sub-Saharan Africa’s chronic problems: the region has 13%of the world’s population, but 48% of the share of the global population without access to electricity.

One-third of the region’s population lives in countries where annual electricity use averages less than 100 kilowatt-hours (kWh) each. That’s just about what a single 100 watt light bulb consumes over a month. By contrast, global average consumption figure is 2,800kWh; it is about 5,700kWh in the European Union and a staggering 12,200kWh in the United States.

Figures from the Africa Progress Panel indicate that it takes the average Tanzanian around eight years to consume as much electricity as an American uses in one month; a kettle boiled twice a day by a family in Britain uses five times as much electricity as a Malian uses in a year.

In fact, when American households switch on to watch the Super Bowl, the annual finale of the football season, they consume 10 times the electricity used over the course of a year by the more than 1 million people living in Juba, capital city of South Sudan.

Power shortages are a fact of life in nearly every sub-Saharan country, and in many places electricity is provided by expensive diesel generators, with prices ranging from three to six times what grid consumers pay across the world.

This makes many Africa-based industries and manufacturing sectors uncompetitive, slows job growth, and drags down annual GDP growth between one to three percentage points, data from McKinsey Global Institute shows.

It’s not just the obviously heavy energy users, like factories, that are affected. In Nigeria, for example,diesel fuel is also a major expense for banks to ensure their branches have electricity.

Similarly, diesel fuel is often a leading expense for the major African mobile-phone companies, representing up to 60% of some operators network costs, according to McKinsey.

Restricted access to modern energy services undermines both health and education, sometimes in unlikely ways.

Health systems depend heavily on reliable electricity for refrigeration for vaccines and other medicines, sterilization, many medical instruments, lighting and the functioning of operating theatres. Yet around one-quarter of health facilities reviewed in one of the most comprehensive surveys available for Sub-Saharan Africa, covering 11 countries, reported no access to electricity.


Energy deficits is holding back progress in child health. Some 60% of the fridges used to store vaccines in Africa lack access to a reliable source of energy, leading to high levels of wastage and higher delivery costs. In a region with around 105 million children who have not been fully vaccinated, such energy shortfalls can cost lives, the Africa Progress Panel report states.

Energy poverty also leads to educational disadvantage in some unlikely ways. While 
there has been much attention to the real potential for new learning technologies in education, there has been less recognition of some familiar energy-related problems.

Improved access to modern energy can mean more time for attending school, especially for girls, onwhom the bulk of firewood-collecting chores fall.

Still, it isn’t all darkness and gloom. The high penetration of generators actually demonstrates that African businesses and consumers are willing to pay for electricity.

Two-thirds of the energy infrastructure that should be 
in place by 2030 has yet to be built. Demand for energy is set to surge, fuelled by economic growth, demographic change and urbanization. As concerns over climate change spur innovation that is driving down costs for low-carbon energy, Africa could seize the opportunity to leapfrog into a new era of power generation.

No region has more abundant or less utilized renewable energy potential, according to Africa Progress Panel.

Solar power is Africa’s most abundant but least utilized source of energy generation. Potential capacity has been placed as high as 11 terawatts. Put it in context, it represents 260 times the current grid-based capacity (excluding South Africa, which alone accounts for over 60% of sub-Saharan Africas grid capacity).

Most of the region enjoys more than 300 days of bright sunlight and irradiance levels twice the average for Germany, where a thriving solar industry has developed. Estimates of prospective solar photovoltaic (PV) electricity supply in Africa by 
2030 range from 15GW to 62GW.

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