Light at the end of the tunnel

There is definitely no shortage of energy sources in Africa. More than 90% of the continent’s hydropower, according to the bank, is not even exploited. Nigeria has oil and gas and South Africa has coal. Sudan has 6.4bn barrels of gas reserves, Angola has 9bn with smaller deposits in a few other countries. What then is the problem? Yumkella, a Sierra Leonean, explains: “In the past we have not considered energy as part of poverty reduction.” For a long time, he said, African states monopolised and mismanaged the energy sector. Emergency interventions in energy supply such as in Liberia – also emulated by neighbouring Sierra Leone – have been more impulsive than based on sound economics. Such an emergency approach “represents a planning and procurement failure on a colossal scale”, according to a World Bank assessment, adding that the costs of procuring and running power plants in these countries “could rise up to 3%-5% of GDP”.

Power trade

Furthermore, there are huge unexploited energy resources in countries that are far from centres of demand. For example, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Ethiopia have huge hydroelectric potential but are “far from the main economic centres in southern, western and northern Africa”, the World Bank points out. And these countries’ economies are not robust enough to invest billions of dollars in hydroelectricity just for their own consumption. “Some African countries have water, Guinea, for example. Some have gas [Nigeria, Angola]… there is a need to transmit from high production areas to places where they don’t have it but the demand is high,” says Yumkella.

To resolve such a problem, African leaders recommend an integrated regional power strategy – meaning that countries with better economics of scale in energy resources should consider investing in the sector and then sell to others. Countries spending huge amounts to purchase diesel oil or fuel for power plants are better off negotiating with a neighboring country for hydropower. Along this line, the Programme for the Infrastructure Development of Africa (PIDA), an African Union initiative, is backing a US$22bn project to develop a pan-African electricity highway by 2020.

Ethiopia’s strategy

Ethiopia wants to be an energy superpower and is crafting a 25-year master plan to potentially generate 60,000MW from hydro, geothermal, wind and solar. That’s almost what all of sub-Saharan Africa currently generates. The country is building the Grand Renaissance Dam, the biggest ever on the continent which, on completion within the next three years, could produce 6,000MW. In addition, a US-Icelandic company, Reykjavik Geothermal, is set to build a $4bn geothermal plant that will generate 1,000MW. Ethiopia Reykjavik Geothermal has Africa’s largest wind farm from which it is generating 120MW.

The country’s ambitious energy plan is like a magnet that is pulling in neighbouring countries. Djibouti, Kenya, Sudan, South Sudan, Rwanda, Tanzania and even Yemen, a non-African country, have signed power supply contracts with Ethiopia. At the same time, the World Bank and the African Development Bank (AfDB) are financing a transmission line capable of transporting 2,000MW of electricity from Ethiopia to Kenya. Ethiopia is looking “at energy as an export sector the way you export gold”, notes Donald Kaberuka, head of the AfDB.

There is good news in other countries as well. For example, with support from the World Bank, Rwanda successfully completed its Electricity Rollout Access Programme in 2012, connecting 1m homes to the national power grid. Ongoing reforms in Sierra Leone will soon brighten hopes for improved power for its 6m people, according to the World Bank. South Africa is the world’s most attractive emerging solar energy country, reports Global Information Service, an organisation that monitors evolution in energy transmission. The country could produce up to 8,500MW from solar by 2030.

Nothing is impossible

Africa’s private sector is also jumping on the energy bandwagon. The Financial Times calls Nigeria’s energy privatisation programme Africa’s most ambitious. Hopefully, this should eliminate mismanagement “while delivering cheap electricity”. In July last year, US President Barack Obama announced in South Africa a “Power Africa” initiative that will raise $16bn from private and public sectors to generate 10,000MW of electricity for communities in sub-Saharan Africa. African philanthropists have pledged various amounts to this effort.

There is currently a sense of urgency about energy on the continent. Africa can leapfrog obsolete technologies to focus on those for exploiting low-carbon energy sources. “Africa has to be positioned to develop its renewable energy assets,” writes Carlos Lopes, executive secretary of the Economic Commission for Africa, in a blog post. While the goal, says Yumkella, is to concentrate on renewable low-carbon sources such as wind, solar, geothermal, for now, “it’s all energy sources… we can be like Brazil. They have proven technology on ethanol. They have just discovered huge deposits of oil off their coast. Still they are pushing renewables heavily.”

With all the efforts underway, how soon could Africa see sufficient light at the end of the dimly-lit energy tunnel? Yumkella believes that can happen within two decades. “Nothing is impossible,” he quips.

This article was first published by Africa Renewal.