Africa Power Crisis (NY Times)
Windpower in Namibia, free fluorescent bulbs in South Africa, industrial customers paid to switch off equipment during periods of high demand. These progressive ideas are but a postscript in the story of the power crisis in Africa. Most of the sub-Saharan nations face electricity shortages and unprecedented power crises that mirror -- or presage -- the U.S. experience. Their solution: more power plants, if they can build them.
July 30, 2007
Map: Sub-Saharan Africa is shown in green, but that's not the color of the region's energy future.
"Toiling in the Dark: Africa's Power Crisis" is an informative chronicle of how the lack of reliable power is hampering development in Africa.
For Africans who are lucky enough to have grid power, blackouts and rationing are commonplace. In Nigeria, only 19 of 79 power plants work. Ghana's government leases legions of generators to produce emergency power. Angola businesses run private generators to bridge outages, worsening pollution.
South Africa, which previously sold excess power to neighboring countries, began in January 2007 to experience rolling blackouts and failures. Eskom, the government power monopoly, knew a decade ago that it would face these shortages, but didn't build the needed power plants.
Fragile grid infrastructure costs utilities millionsThere's not much power to go around in Africa, and much of the supply goes to energy-intensive industries like mining and smelters. Sub-Saharan nations are adding about a thousand MW of generation each year, but grids are so ramshackle and poorly maintained that about 40 percent of generated power is lost or stolen.
"Some governments privatized chunks of their power industry in the early 1990s when free-market solutions to public-sector problems were in vogue, leaving it unclear who is ultimately responsible for providing power."
Sound familiar? There hasn't been significant investment in the power transmission and distribution infrastructure in southern Africa in 15-20 years.
Where are renewables?The situation in Africa is a classic case for distributed, renewable energy. Uganda's capital has day-long blackouts and is using huge diesel generators at a time of record oil prices. Uganda's gas stations are now short of diesel for vehicles. With the cost of this approach, the nation could have build two hydroelectric dams. Uganda has hydroelectric power, but the demand is causing water supply problems. Meanwhile, carbon emissions grow.
The premium cost of solar and wind energy is driving these nations to construct fossil-fueled generating stations as fast as they can in the face of violence and poverty. World Bank financing of power projects in sub-Saharan Africa has grown from $250 million five years ago to $1 billion in 2007. Zambia's utility plans to invest $1.2 billion; South Africa, $20 billion; Congo is planning a hydroelectric station.
One solution is for nations to cooperate regionally. One or two large regional plants, proponents say, could supply power more cheaply and efficiently than dozens of smaller ones.
Another solution is renewables, distributed to bypass the grid and supply power where it is needed. Unfortunately, that solution -- and almost any other -- is out of economic reach for most African nations.