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Electrical Grid and Africa: A Perspective on What's Missing

Yael Borofsky's picture
Massachusetts Institute of Technology

I am a graduate student in MIT's Department of Urban Studies and Planning and in the Engineering Systems Division. I'm a co-founder of e4Dev and a fellow in the Tata Center for...

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  • Jul 4, 2013

Electricity and Africa

By Yael Borofsky and Sarah Dimson

With the announcement Sunday in Cape Town of the Obama administration’s Power Africa initiative, the President shifted the universal electricity access dialogue from one focused on small scale interventions to one hinged on building a foundation for wide reaching, reliable, clean power systems.

But even though Obama’s announcement has raised the profile of electricity access, excitement about the proposal should be tempered with the recognition that the degree of complexity within each country’s power sector will require far more than a relatively brief spark of attention from the United States. A real transformation of the power sector in sub-Saharan Africa will require long term planning, extensive regulatory overhauls, and serious commitment to fund energy technology manufacturing and R&D on African soil.

In the next five years, Power Africa intends to extend electricity access to an additional 20 million sub-Saharan Africans across six countries and improve hydrocarbon management in two more. The proposal commits approximately $7 billion in grants, financing facilities and technical assistance. And beyond the White House, private sector corporations also made commitments to invest about $9 billion in sub-Saharan Africa’s energy sector.

While many laud Obama’s proposal for being a highly visible example of the sort of public-private dynamic that could attract more follow-on investment, others note that Power Africa’s financial commitment and the target number of beneficiaries is minimal compared to the scope of the challenge. Even doubling access to electricity in sub-Saharan Africa will still leave more than 550 million people in the dark.

In a forthcoming paper in Issues in Science and Technology, Morgan Bazilian, Deputy Director of the Joint Institute for Strategic Energy Analysis and Roger Pielke, Jr., a professor in the Center for Science and Technology Policy Research at the University of Colorado, calculate that to bring sub-Saharan Africa up to the levels of per capita electricity consumption of South Africa would require increasing installed capacity by 330 gigawatts (GW). This represents 320 GW more than that called for in President Obama’s Power Africa proposal. Just to put that number in perspective, electricity consumption in South Africa, the sub-Saharan African country with the highest rate of electrification, is about 4,803 kWh per capita, compared to about 13,395 per capita in the United States (as of 2010).

But to us, as graduate students who study electrification and energy planning, Power Africa is not just about the technological expansion of the grid to sub-Saharan Africa’s fast-growing populace. The proposal is arguably also a call for power sector reform in a region that is economically and socially limited by dilapidated and insufficient energy infrastructure as well as fledgling regulatory apparatus.

Other regions in the Global South have responded to similar calls for sweeping changes to their power sector. In 2002, Brazil set out on a new course to effectively reform its energy sector and use electricity as an economic engine and instrument for societal progress. The government made a slew of structural reforms that resulted in the 2004 release of the New Power Sector Model (NMSE), which fueled private sector investment, enabled Brazil to become the 10th largest generator of electricity in the world, and emerge as a global leader in the clean energy sector (per hydro, wind, solar, and biomass energy generation sources).

Sub-Saharan countries like Tanzania, which recently discovered trillions of cubic feet of domestic natural gas and has aspirations to incorporate renewable electricity sources such as wind and solar, could learn from Brazil’s experience. Brazil’s power sector reforms may have started with an administrative call to action, but their ability to create an environment that is conducive for private sector investment is the real power behind the transformation of Brazil’s energy sector. The Africa-Brazil connection is becoming more common in knowledge transfer (and trade) and could serve as a useful case study to those implementing new power technologies, systems and strategies in sub-Saharan Africa.

Perhaps, the underlying operational details of Power Africa, are similar to Brazil’s strategy, which brought together various administrative agencies to build a reform strategy. In Power Africa’s case US AID is dedicating $285 million to “help governments adopt and implement the policy, regulatory, and other reforms necessary to attract private sector investment in the energy and power sectors.” In addition, the Millennium Challenge Corporation  will invest another $1 billion “in African power systems through its country compacts to increase access and the reliability and sustainability of electricity supply through investments in energy infrastructure, policy and regulatory reforms and institutional capacity building,” according to the White House.

Ultimately, sub-Saharan Africa’s emerging international relations with the US, with respect to the energy sector, should work in a way that promotes Africans leading Africa. One possible way to do this, which Power Africa fails to outwardly address, is to make targeted commitments to develop in-country energy sector manufacturing and R&D to advance new technologies and drive long-term economic growth.

With Power Africa, Obama has accelerated the need to advance on-going electrification efforts and create new paths for universal electrification in sub-Saharan Africa. At the end of Power Africa’s programmatic life and when Obama’s term has ended, we hope to see many more energy-related construction cranes in sub-Saharan Africa. And, more importantly, we hope to see lasting power sector reforms that allow established private sector players, promising young professionals and researchers an opportunity to readily enter the market or engage in creating innovative solutions to what will still be a phenomenal energy challenge. 

Yael Borofsky and Sarah Dimson are graduate students in MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning and Co-Chairs of e4Dev, a new MIT forum focused on energy and human development.

Photo Credit: Electricity Access/shutterstock

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Victor Mallet's picture
Victor Mallet on Jul 5, 2013

Interesting piece. $7b for Africa is indeed just scratching the surface – we’re talking about an entire continent larger than North America. But if deployed intelligently together with private sector funding at critical points, could still be a huge boost to industrial productivity and urban residential life. Brazil’s example is a nice one, but Africa is 54 different countriesa- hence virtually impossible to adopt one grand master plan. Unfortunately each country, or at best regions (eg ECOWAS), will have to solve their power issues separately. As an energy professional living in Accra, Ghana, and experiencing multiple blackouts per week, a few hundred MW in the mix would make a mountain of difference. Further, there must be a place there for distributed generation – stringing the grid into the most remote places will makes little economic sense. It will take decades of commitment by governments and regulation fostering private investment as you say, to get us to that utopia of uninterrupted, reliable power. 

Paul O's picture
Paul O on Jul 6, 2013


My biggest issue with the notion of Distributed Generation is that it is still a pie in the sky. I assert that the advocates of this method first try and prove it in the Rich Western Coubtries. If and when it is shown capable of supporting growth, indutrialization, and higher standards of living, then I’d welcome it openly.

As it is right now, power black outs in Africa are mainly as a result of Neglect,  and as such, I see no disadvatage, nor insurmountable obstacle to puting out new lines and new transformers. Peole in rural Africa live in live in population centers that are sometimes Centuries old. These centrers would be a natural hub for power distribution.

I would be disinclined to lock African into a mode of power supply that is incapable of supporting their future needs.

Paul Neil Sagala's picture
Paul Neil Sagala on Jul 6, 2013

It is gratifying to see President Obama’s push for assisting the larger grid power sector in Africa. One thing remains certain, and that is, there are many obstacles – too little electricity generation, two few electricity sources – mostly hydro and thermal, very limited transmission and distribution networks etc. Indeed, there are also too many other hurdles to jump – policy environment, support / subsidy frameworks, attenntion to the sector, planning and projections etc.

A start is required, and I believe, the focal areas will initially target the most deserving areas on the long journey ahead.

The change in approach to focus on sizeable power is indeed most welcome.

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Jul 6, 2013

Yes, there is a great danger that western politics will distort this sort of program into something that ignores the best interests of the Africans.  Typically, developing nations want low-cost power (i.e. hydro and fossil fuel).  The developed nations will push them instead to implement high cost renewables, plus  help them develop fossil fuels for export at a prices the locals can’t afford.

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