Africans planning electric power with climate change in mind

Africa is set to be hit hard by climate change, and it already faces the highest electric power costs in the world. But new initiatives could put Africa at forefront in adapting alternative energies.

In ancient Rome, the way to stay in power was to provide bread and circuses. In much of Africa, the key is to keep the lights on.

This week, riots turned the normally peaceful streets of Dakar, Senegal, into a civic warzone not seen since the last time Vancouver, Canada, hosted a hockey match. Burning tires – and worse, burning office buildings for the local power company – were left behind wherever protestors went, loudly showing their anger about the inability of the state electric company, Senelec, to keep up with growing demand for power. Some towns, like Mbour, 80 kilometers from Dakar, have gone 48 hours without electricity.

Power cuts are daily affairs across the African continent. Electricity is such an unreliable commodity in Nigeria, for instance, that Nigerians have nicknamed their electric power company PHCN “Please Hold Candle Now.” (The real name is Power Holding Company of Nigeria.) Even in South Africa, the continent’s most developed economy, electric power cuts are becoming increasingly common, with “load shedding” sending whole neighborhoods into darkness for peak power-use hours.

Climate change is going to make this current problem even worse, development experts predict, since Africa is the continent likely to suffer the most from the drastic changes in temperature and rainfall, according to World Bank studies. But while African nations are faced with growing discontent over their inability to plan ahead, there are encouraging signs that they are teaming up with international investment institutions like the African Development Bank and with individual donor nations like China and India to meet the growing need for infrastructure, says Bob Pittman, vice president of climate change programs for the African Development Bank in Tunis.

“African governments and the African people are already taking charge to create the solutions to their problems,” says Mr. Pittman, after attending a climate change conference in Cape Town. Particularly on the growing challenges of climate change, which can mean reduced access to rainwater in some areas, and growing needs for electricity in others, “Africans are in the lead in developing some of the processes for meeting the problem of climate change.”

African citizens bear the highest electricity tariffs in the world, Pittman says, a cruel burden for a continent that has a disproportionately high number of people living at or below the poverty line. Yet that very fact is already pushing African nations to develop alternative power sources such as wind and solar, which are too expensive to develop in countries that have cheaper access to fossil fuels.

“Those who do pay high tariffs are finding that solar in rural areas is a suitable technology,” says Pittman. “And in Kenya, a wind power project on Lake Turkana is being developed. Kenya plans to have 30 percent of its power based on wind power.”

“African governments and the African people are not being coerced into making these plans,” says Pittman. “We’re just trying to run and keep up with them and stay relevant in this changing world.”


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