The dramatic decrease in the cost of renewable energy technologies seen in recent years presents an unprecedented opportunity to improve our access to energy—and create employment in the process. This is especially true in Somaliland, where more than 80% of the local population of 3.5 million does not have access to modern electricity.
Somaliland’s small economy cannot afford large investments in the infrastructure needed for generating energy in the more traditional, 20th century sense. Running electricity lines over long distances to reach a geographically dispersed, off-grid population is simply uneconomical. Moreover, at US$0.85 per kilowatt, the cost of electricity in Somaliland is among the highest in the world.
Tanzania is not a country one would ordinarily expect to find in the ranks of the water- stressed. It hosts, or shares, at least eleven freshwater lakes, and is home to countless rivers, including the Great Ruaha.
Tanzania is relatively blessed with its water resources.
Yet over the past 25 years, the country’s population has doubled to about 53 million and the size of its economy has more than tripled. As a result, Tanzania’s per capita amount of renewable freshwater has declined, from more than 3,000m3 to about 1,600m3 per person today—below the 1,700m3 level that is internationally considered to be the threshold for water stress.
As my plane lands in Maputo, I am welcomed home by blankets of turquoise waters edged in creamy ribbons of sand, and swaths of greens in every shade, from scrubby mangroves to unique coastal forests endemic to Maputaland. But I also see rapidly sprawling human settlements and degraded areas where forests once flourished.
When a mini-grid project came to Atigagome, a remote island in the middle of Ghana’s Lake Volta, the kerosene lamps people had been using became decorative pieces that were hung on the walls—a reminder that the island’s days of darkness were over. But the village not only gave up kerosene lamps and candles: it also attracted people like Seth Hormuku, who migrated to the island once a stable electricity supply was being provided to the local community.
Various scholars have indulged tremendous resources to study poverty. Amartya Sen is among such scholars. He used the ideas of Adams Smith as his building blocks and looked at poverty as lacking the basics that one needs in order to co-exist in the society. The World Bank estimates that 4 out of 10 Kenyans live in poverty. Consequently, several approaches to reduce poverty have been tried and tested in Kenya. In most cases, these approaches have been a blend of various theories, which have been opined by various scholars. However, it is my belief that just like cancer – which requires a combination of chemotherapy and proper nutrition – poverty cannot be fought using a single approach.
Sustainable energy access is vital to the eradication of poverty. I believe that by providing access to affordable energy, it triggers the domino effect of bringing light, clean water, tools of communication and learning, improving health, and allowing for the establishment and growth of small businesses. World Bank President Jim Yong Kim stated when joining the Sustainable Energy for All initiative in 2012, “Ending poverty and ensuring sustainability are the defining challenges of our time. Energy is central to both of them.”
As African Presidents, Prime Ministers, and business leaders arrive in Washington to attend the first US-Africa Summit, one topic that will be paramount in their discussions with President Obama and his Cabinet is: how governments and families can access affordable electricity across the African continent.
Consider the facts: one in three Africans, that’s 600 million people, has no access to electricity. Neither do some 10 million small and medium-sized enterprises. Those homes and businesses fortunate enough to have power pay three times as much as those in the United States and Europe; furthermore, they routinely endure power outages that cost their countries from one to four percent in lost GDP every year.
Despite the fact that Africa is blessed with some of the world’s largest hydropower and geothermal resources (10-15 GW of geothermal potential in the Rift Valley alone), bountiful solar and wind resources, as well as significant natural gas reserves, total power generation capacity in Africa is about 80,000 megawatts (MW) (including South Africa), roughly the same as that of Spain or South Korea.
As Africa enters its 20th consecutive year of economic expansion, with the World Bank forecasting that Africa’s GDP growth will remain steady at 4.7 percent in 2014, and strengthening to 5.1 percent in each of 2015 and 2016, the continent needs more electric power. Specifically, Africa needs to add 7,000 MW of generation capacity each year to meet the projected growth in demand, yet it has achieved only 1,000 MW of additional power generation annually.
Over the last week I visited Cameroon and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, two of Africa’s so-called ‘fountain states.’ The resources in these two countries – along with Guinea, Ethiopia, and Uganda – can generate enough hydroelectricity to satisfy the growing demand in Africa. I saw the range of applications for which this power is needed, and I saw clear solutions.
In Eastern Cameroon I visited the construction site for the Lom Pangar hydropower project. Once construction is complete and the reservoir is filled in the next couple of years, this new dam on the Sanaga River will improve the reliability of power supply and lower the cost for up to five million Cameroonians. The Lom Pangar project will also pave the way for developing the full 6,000 MW of hydropower potential of the Sanaga River by regulating the flow of the river.
In the Democratic Republic of Congo, last week, I visited the Inga hydropower site on the mighty Congo River. DRC’s overall hydropower potential is estimated at 100,000 MW, the third largest in the world behind China and Russia, yet only 2.5% of this key resource has been developed. With 40,000 MW of generation potential, Inga is the world’s largest hydropower site. Its proper development can make Inga the African continent’s most cost-effective, renewable source of energy with an estimated generation cost of US$ 0.03 per kilowatt hour with little or no carbon footprint--a significant added virtue.
Stretching for more than 1,800 kilometers across Guinea, Mali, Senegal and Mauritania, the Senegal River is the third longest river in Africa. In a region such as the Sahel, which is plagued by drought, poverty, and underdevelopment, access to a water resource such as the Senegal River is critical to local populations who rely on it for energy production, land irrigation, and potable water.
Preparing a recent project mission to Angola, I came across the country’s latest accomplishment: a gigantic new refinery to consolidate its national oil industry. Looking at that massive structure, I was hit with a sudden thought: if they can pull off such an enormous and complex feat of engineering, what do they need me for?