How to spread power to 600 million Africans without it

Two-thirds of sub-Saharan Africans lacks access to electricity and all the modern amenities that come with it. A new report suggests that $450 billion of new investment would bring much-needed power to the region's city-dwellers by 2040.

Tullow Oil Uganda/Reuters/File
A worker is seen at an oil exploration site in Bulisa district, approximately 152 miles northwest of Kampala, Uganda. Nearly 30 percent of global oil and gas discoveries made in the past five years have been in sub-Saharan Africa, according to IEA.

Some 600 million Africans lack access to electricity on a continent rich with the resources needed to produce it. It will take hundreds of billions of dollars to change that dynamic, according to a new report.

Sub-Saharan Africa has no shortage of water, wind, and sun with which to fuel a renewable-energy revolution. New oil and gas finds across the continent promise to lift millions out of poverty. The latest technologies make smarter, more efficient, and more decentralized electricity grids well-suited for rural, off-grid Africa.  

And still, 2 in 3 three sub-Saharan Africans are without reliable power. That means children lack clean light by which to do homework. It means no refrigerators to help keep food fresh. No Internet or computers or phones or air conditioning or any of the countless other amenities that make modern standards of living possible. 

Changing that calculus will be one of this continent's great development challenges. How it changes will shape the future of energy and the climate.

"The continent is very rich in terms of energy resources, but very poor in energy supply," Fatih Birol, chief economist at the Paris-based International Energy Agency (IEA), says in a telephone interview. "The economic and social development of Africa critically hinges on fixing the energy sector."

An additional $450 billion of investment in sub-Saharan Africa's power sector is needed to halve power outages and achieve universal electricity access in cities by 2040, according to a special IEA report on Africa released Monday. It concludes that expanded energy access, alongside other reforms, would give the region's economy a 30 percent lift by providing businesses small and large the predictable flow of electricity they need to grow. 

African nations will have to accomplish this at a time of enormous tension in global energy and climate policy. The world remains largely rooted in the fossil fuel era, while more conscious than ever of the environmental risks inherent to burning coal, oil, and gas. African leaders face pressure – largely from within their own borders – to expand electricity access by any means necessary. They also face pressure – largely from foreign nations and global development banks – to do it in a way that doesn't lock another continent into decades of runaway, planet-warming emissions. 

In a perfect world, many would hope to see sub-Saharan Africa achieve universal electricity access without adding another metric ton of carbon dioxide to Earth's already saturated atmosphere. Of course, the reality is much more complicated. 


Nearly 30 percent of global oil and gas discoveries made in the past five years have been in sub-Saharan Africa, according to IEA's report. Those discoveries, particularly in East Africa, could rapidly expand energy access on the continent. It's why some say slowing efforts to develop fossil fuel resources in Kenya, Tanzania, Mozambique, and elsewhere are both economically and ethically questionable – particularly when it comes from Western countries that have spent well over a century running their economies on carbon-heavy coal, oil, and gas. 

"If we tell Tanzania they have to go all renewables it means all [their] natural gas will go to Asia, and we’ll be keeping Tanzania literally in the dark," says Todd Moss, chief operating officer at the Center for Global Development, a think tank based in Washington.

"Yes, there should be public support for renewables. Yes, countries should do it smarter," Mr. Moss adds via telephone, "but the decisions about energy should be made on efficiency, cost, and access."   


In many parts of sub-Saharan Africa, renewables do make a lot of sense, Moss and others note, and the industry is rapidly expanding. IEA projects almost half of the growth in electricity generation to 2040 will come from renewable sources. Chief among them is hydropower, which makes up roughly a fifth of the region's power supply, according to IEA, but less than 10 percent of its technical potential is harvested. Kenya, Ethiopia, and other countries sit on geothermal hot spots that can be harnessed for heating or to generate electricity.

Solar power is proving enormously useful for rural communities far away from any traditional electric grid. Combined with onsite battery storage, solar panels provide a cleaner, cheaper, and renewable alternative to the smoky, inefficient diesel generators many currently use. Efficient technologies, like the Nobel-winning light-emitting diodes (LEDs), provide more light for fewer watts than a kerosene lamp or traditional incandescent light bulb. Major foreign governments and multilateral development banks (such as the World Bank and African Development Bank), and the Obama administration's Power Africa program aim to help finance the spread of these technologies. But some say they have not done enough to boost clean energy spending and limit the underwriting of fossil fuel plants.

On Oct. 9, the Sierra Club, a Washington-based environmental group, issued a report awarding these groups an 'F' for being "missing in action" on developing clean energy across regions many say are particularly vulnerable to climate change.  

“At a time when investments in clean energy access for populations living beyond the grid are rapidly expanding, there are one set of institutions missing in action -- the world’s top development banks," Vrinda Manglik, the author of the report, said in a statement. "Not unlike mobile phones, solar power is poised to leapfrog a centralized and ineffective network. It’s time development institutions aligned their investments with this 21st century reality.”

Dodging a 'curse'

Renewables also offer an alternative to fossil fuel resources that have been more curse than blessing for some parts of Africa. In Nigeria, the Ivory Coast, and other West African countries, vast oil and gas wealth has mixed with unruly governments to the detriment of local economies and ecosystems. Nigeria, Africa's largest oil producer, lost about 300,000 barrels of oil a day last year to theft, according to state-owned Nigerian National Petroleum Corp. Years of accidents and spills have left a legacy of environmental devastation in the delta of the Niger River.   

That's not to say oil and gas hasn't spurred economic development in these regions, only that it has suffered from mismanagement and a lack of oversight. As a more stable East Africa plans for a coming boom of its own, there's hope nations can learn from mistakes made in Nigeria and elsewhere.

"All will depend on the institutional frameworks--especially as pertains to transparency and accountability," Mwangi Kimenyi, director of the Brookings Institution's Africa Growth Initiative, wrote via e-mail. "If indeed the countries establish and enforce acceptable standards of accountability, then we can expect to see an economic boom."

But even when African oil and gas development yields success, much of the resulting product ends up in the cars, plastics, and power plants of non-Africans. That's largely because Western firms have the capital, expertise, and scale to tap many of the large, complex plays across the continent. And they would rather sell their energy in more lucrative and stable markets abroad. 

"Not all of the investments made in the continent, but a significant chunk of these investments are for exporting the energy ... not for using at home, but exporting to other economic centers – to Europe, to North America, to Asia and elsewhere," Dr. Birol says. Two of every three dollars invested in the sub-Saharan energy sector since 2000 have been invested in projects aimed at exporting that energy, according to IEA.

Despite these challenges, most believe fossil fuels will play a major role – alongside carbon-free renewable sources – in spreading electricity across the continent.

"Africa's contribution to greenhouse gases is tiny compared to the global emissions," writes Mr. Kimenyi. "Now that many African countries have discovered oil and also coal, it would be irrational and economically suicidal not to exploit these resources in generation of electricity. So, yes, it is a good idea to invest in renewables but Africa must also exploit its oil and coal resources and of course natural gas to generate much needed power."

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