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What should the Roadmap for sub-Saharan Energy planning look like post energy access? - A two part discussion

image credit: Photo credits: Engie Energy Access
Lewis Waswa's picture
Consultant EED Advisory Limited

Energy Consultant at EED Advsory Limited || Ph.D Candidate 

  • Member since 2020
  • 26 items added with 9,547 views
  • Jan 12, 2023
  • 228 views

The energy landscape in sub-Saharan Africa is rapidly changing. A lot of pathways to electrification have emerged, with a particular focus on poor countries. It is likely that different countries are going to measure the access and electrification through different approaches other than the conventional grid connections. To this end, many development partners have pitched in to enhance energy access and reduce energy poverty in the global south. These developments are a critical part of solving the energy crisis – which is intricately connected to many other systemic issues such as sustainability, climate change and economic development. The intersection of these issues provides a good starting point for proper diagnosis – and solution finding for energy related national and continental challenges.

It is obvious that economic development is usually anchored on the availability of reliable and affordable energy. The part on sustainability can be debated and could form another discussion. It is also a fact that sub-Saharan Africa has high population growth rate- and in another 3 decades, Africa shall be home to about 4 billion people. This high population will require job opportunities – in agriculture, and manufacturing. The increased population shall also need new modes of transportation, water, food, among other issues that are key to the survival of the humanity. Imagining the current chaos with less that 3 billion people, one cannot help but conjure apocalyptic images of poor waste management, unplanned residential areas, lack of employment and general misery. Yet this could also be different. However, we will stick to energy and how proper forward thinking, and reflection on the current trajectory could help alleviate the challenges of the future.

Whether universal access to energy has been achieved is a concern for another day. The next discourse must consider what lies thereafter. It can be argued that while addressing the energy access has by far and large improved the quality of life, it was not an idea that sufficiently considered the most insidious plight of the residents of sub-Saharan Africa, in so far as energy systems and supply is concerned. And where these planners considered the same, it was poorly implemented or was totally avoided and replaced with the renewable energy agenda. It is necessary to state that there is nothing against the renewables. However, it is important to note that sub-Saharan Africa, as has been in many cases, found itself at the consumption end of this industry, and did not have its own voice on the matter. For instance. no one is yet to speak about the likely environmental challenge that might implode from the characteristic “dumping” of solar and other technologies. Again, I digress.

One key aspect that has either been forgotten (as is the case in many African states) or mismanaged (as is in Kenya) has been the consideration of energy infrastructure going into the future. As a net consumer of technology and goods, countries such as Kenya do not have the luxury to wait and pray and hope that technology shall find and provide system relief. Therefore, planning energy scenarios would require a roadmap that reiterates the significance of having a stronger network to supply future energy needs, and supply power of standard quality.

Kenya’s distribution network is old and weak – and in local terms, afraid of the rain. For whatever reasons, rainy seasons are synonymous to increased outages. This significantly affects business, manufacturing, and the economy at large. The widespread use of backup diesel generators (estimated to be more than twice the total installed generation capacity), is a testament to the high unreliability of our system. Failure to address these issues, and continued by-passing of overloaded distribution transformers, cannot catapult us to the fabled Silicon Savannah. And for the enthusiasts of the access programs, beyond the provision of lighting – and the myriad of poor folk caught between sessions of darkness and light, due to weekly defaulting, pay as you go pico systems cannot be used by mandazi makers to improve their economic welfare. We must get serious as a country and move away from this complacence.

Solid progress that can shift all the factors within the intersection of our national goals must first deal with the inadequacy and inefficiency of our supply system. The infrastructure is the only guarantor of reliability. However, this has not been seriously considered by successive governments, and it is without doubt one of the key aspects that require urgent addressing. This is closely tied to the question of renewables, cost of energy and power purchase agreements, discussed in second part of this conversation.

As in our earlier article published years back, it should be obvious now to development partners that access programs shall only serve to keep sub-Saharan communities in dependency. Alarmingly, some governments have taken on the habit of classifying pico systems and off-grid systems as electrification. Again, it my considered view that such delays what we must do. To harness and have some form of control on the future of the continent, it is critical that a wholesome planning mechanism be rolled with a strong emphasis on robust infrastructure planning. This must consider all forms of resources, among them coal, nuclear and whatever else can provide us with affordable and stable power and enhance reliable interconnections to our cities, factories, schools, and hospitals. Interim planning for 4 billion people may not be a walk in the park.

Discussions
Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Jan 12, 2023

Is there a risk of it being shortsighted to go completely away from grid-tied energy? For the sake of long-term reliability, I hope that connecting the grid to these regions is still on the eventual docket. 

Lewis Waswa's picture
Lewis Waswa on Jan 19, 2023

Hi Matt. I doubt that there is such risk really. I think the challenge is how do you optimize a weak network to incorporate all these nice technologies? What type of training is needed to ensure that in the end the private VRE operators can pay for certain costs - and that the PPAs are streamlined with the end-goal in mind. And this is ensuring that there is affordable, sustainable, reliable and economically meaningful energy to spur the development for the next century. I suppose this a hard balance - but may be I could share my thoughts in the second part to this post

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Jan 19, 2023

Thanks for your reply, Lewis. It indeed is a tough challenge and there is a lot to weigh. I'd certainly welcome and look forward to a part 2 post from you!

Mark Silverstone's picture
Mark Silverstone on Jan 14, 2023

Even if Europe and North America are highly successful in transitioning away from carbon intense energy generation, little will have been accomplished if Africa and South Asia are left behind and emissions continue to increase there.

As you indicate, increasing population and the need for energy systems to power industry as well as at home, make it far from simple to design the generation and distribution systems that are required.

«… it is critical that a wholesome planning mechanism be rolled with a strong emphasis on robust infrastructure planning. This must consider all forms of resources,…»

Perhaps the biggest challenge is not getting the assistence that will be required, but in getting the right kinds of assistance in the form of technologies best suited to the problems, and not what specific industries want to sell. 
Please continue to update Energy Central readers on the status of developments there. As you say, it will not be «a walk in the park».

Lewis Waswa's picture
Lewis Waswa on Jan 19, 2023

Thank you Mark for this thoughtful response. I do agree with you that indeed getting the right technologies best suited to solve the problem would be essential. I would additionally state that there are knowledge gaps in developing the stuff like tariffs - especially as the different technologies are integrated into these networks. My thought would be that some focus should be given on the progressive examination of changes in demand etc. This would be important in understanding the existing infrastructural bottle necks. What I am grappling with is then how do we increase electricity use in the era where renewables are championed for and their impacts ignored for instance (on both the operations and the economic sustainability of our networks).  

Lewis Waswa's picture
Lewis Waswa on Jan 19, 2023

Let us consider for instance the more reason why knowledge transfer is important. For instance, the load forecasting approach could be so bad that the utility has to carry reserves and bear the cost of having these reserves online at all times. This is made worse by the take or pay contracted wind farms, which operate without penalties on their ramps. This means that the utility has to shoulder the associated cost implications - which results in expensive electricity. There are numerous gaps that one could identify that would support gradual and meanigful uptake of more renewables. In one study, done at my group, it was identified that the bidding for wind power in South Africa followed the wind resource pattern. This means that over time, as more wind farms are built in the Northern Cape, the transmission became more constrained and the costs of evacuating this power becomes burdensome. As I said, multiple factors really need to be thought about without discounting any factor. 

Julian Silk's picture
Julian Silk on Jan 15, 2023

Matt Chester has a point.  If something goes wrong with distributed energy systems, who fixes it?  The poor may not be able to pay for the repairs, and so the situation just changes nominally.  At least part of the effort should be to fix the grid.

Lewis Waswa's picture
Lewis Waswa on Jan 19, 2023

Absolutely Julian. One of the central debates around this in Kenya has been on how to develop the costing for the industries that shift from the utility to say solar PV, partly because of the cost factor (multi-variate), availability of private investors putting money in these projects (25 years may pay better than bank interests) and also issues to do with unreliability (dogged us for years). Given the intermittency associated with these resources, how best do you model a costing mechanism reflecting the standby nature of the utility? What must be condidered in the wheeling charge for instance? These are good concerns. 

Julian Silk's picture
Julian Silk on Jan 24, 2023

Lewis, this will sound stupid, and I apologize in advance.  But this sounds like an insurance problem.  If the costs are low enough, the intermittent suppliers can put up funds, either their own or borrowed, as insurance payments.  You have high frequency of insurance payouts, but in principle, the problem sounds the same.  If the costs are not that low, then there has to be a public solution.  My model for this is the agony over FutureGen in Meredosia, Illinois in the U.S.

Lewis Waswa's picture
Thank Lewis for the Post!
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