Energetic Africa

What Obama & the UN Should Do on Energy for Sub-Saharan Africa

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A new report released April 8, titled Our High-Energy Planet, argues that Obama, the US Congress, and the United Nations ought to encourage and facilitate far greater levels of energy consumption in sub-Saharan Africa and other developing nations. With Africa growing rapidly, the energy access targets set for Africa by the UN are far too low, the report authors say. Increased electrification in Africa and beyond should be understood not as a charity for rural villages but as an essential component of national and human development.

April 7, 2014 | Breakthrough Staff,

The Obama administration, the US Congress, the United Nations, and other international agencies should encourage and plan for far-higher energy consumption in sub-Saharan Africa and in other regions that rely on burning wood and dung for energy, say a group of international energy and development experts in a new report, Our High-Energy Planet.

The report comes at a time of debate about how to help Africa and other poor nations gain access to electricity. Congress held hearings on Electrify Africa legislation in March, and the Obama administration is currently developing a framework to support increased electrification in Africa.

Today, over one billion people around the world — five hundred million of them in sub-Saharan Africa alone — lack access to electricity. Nearly three billion people cook over open fires fueled by wood, dung, coal, or charcoal. A recent report by the World Health Organization found that 4.3 million people die each year from household air pollution.

All nations need cheap and reliable electricity to develop. But in recent years, the authors say, the UN and others in the international community “have come to rely on small-scale, decentralized, renewable energy technologies that cannot meet the energy demands of rapidly growing emerging economies and people struggling to escape extreme poverty.”

Africa is set to increase the amount of electricity it gets from dams five-fold, and greatly expand how much of its oil and gas it produces. With larger reserves of natural gas than even the US, Africa today produces one-quarter as much as the US. About half of the gas African nations produce is sent abroad, while the US and Europe consume more oil and gas than they produce.

With Africa growing rapidly, the energy access targets set for Africa by the UN are far too low, the report authors say. “The UN’s flagship energy access program,” the report notes, “claims that ‘basic human needs’ can be met with enough electricity to power a fan, a couple of light bulbs, and a radio for five hours a day.”

The report notes that the average European consumes that much electricity in less than a month. Similarly, the International Energy Agency (IEA) defines “energy access” as 500 kilowatt-hours (kWh) per year, or 100 kWh per person, which is about 0.5 percent of the levels consumed by the average American or Swede, or 1.7 percent of the average Bulgarian.

If the US and UN are going to both support development in Africa, and confront challenges like climate change, the authors say, energy access should be understood not as a charity for rural villages but as an essential component of national development. Cheap and reliable forms of modern energy are used to build roads, power tractors, create fertilizers, and power irrigation pumps, all of which improve agricultural yields and raises income. Affordable and reliable grid electricity also allows factory owners to increase output and hire more workers.

The report highlights the human side of electricity access. Electricity allows hospitals to refrigerate lifesaving vaccines and power medical equipment. It liberates children and women from manual labor. Societies that are able to meet their energy needs become wealthier, more resilient, and better able to navigate social and environmental hazards like climate change and natural disasters.

While there is no single or linear path to modern energy systems, the authors say, there is a common pattern. As countries move from agrarian to industrial to postindustrial societies, they transition from an almost total reliance on biomass fuels like wood and charcoal to reliable, grid-based electricity that relies on a mix of energy resources such as coal, oil, natural gas, hydropower, nuclear fission, and to modern renewables like wind and solar.

Technical innovation, economies of scale, government investments, and competitive markets for energy services improved the performance of these energy systems, lowered their costs, and enhanced the services they provide.

Climate change, the authors note, is a significant concern. However, it should not be dealt with by attempting to limit or restrict the energy consumed by the poorest people in the world.

 

Read the full report here.

 

Photo Credit: Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation


Comments

  • The UN’s objective is an order of magnitude insufficient, “‘basic human needs’ can be met with enough electricity to power a fan, a couple of light bulbs, and a radio for five hours a day.” It’s a “need” that seems to be invented by a “solution” of a few PV panels and a lead acid battery in a house. That’s only about 365 kWh per year for the house.

    Achieving modest prosperity of $7,500 GDP/capita is associated with electricity consumption of 2,000 kWh/capita/year. That’s the level of prosperity that leads to freeing women from daily drudgery, becoming educated, getting jobs, and making reproductive choices that lead to population stability.

    By Robert Hargraves on 2014 04 08

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  • By Robert Hargraves on 2014 04 08

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  • On a related note, ANS’ Will Davis has an illuminating interview in Kenya’s Studied Approach to a Nuclear Future.

    By Ed Leaver on 2014 04 09

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  • How many angels can fit on the head of a pin? Or maybe an example of putting the cart before the horse.

    Idioms aside, you can’t end African poverty with energy sources. What is needed first, is good governance, whatever exactly that means, and nobody knows how to accomplish that at this time. Read “Why Nations Fail” by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson.

    By Russ Finley on 2014 04 12

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    • Russ,

      No one is claiming that energy access is sufficient to end poverty. Poverty has many roots and, over the long-term, Acemoglu & Robinson are probably correct in claiming that a nation’s sustained prosperity depends on “inclusive political institutions”. As you note, nobody has a particularly convincing account oh how to develop these so I’m not sure what the issue is here. That we should do nothing until a country has good institutions? Certainly, there are times when doing nothing might be better than misguided aid efforts but surely that must be determined on a case by case basis? The argument here is that 1) increased energy access is a key component of development and that 2) definitions of energy access should be more ambitious. This isn’t even an argument on how best to accomplish this goal so I don’t see how the fact that sustained prosperity depends on good governance undermines this post?

      Loren King, Analyst
      Breakthrough Institute

      By Breakthrough Admin on 2014 04 23

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    By saber rao on 2017 05 20

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