We need a systemic approach to boost energy access in Africa – World Economic Forum

  • Accelerating access to electricity for the 600 million Africans who lack it today demands a systemic, rather than a purist, approach.
  • Access to non-polluting cooking fuels is a closely associated problem.
  • In this context, waste-to-energy and LPG should be considered part of the solution.

As a systemic shock, the COVID-19 crisis affects all continents, social classes, levels of government and nearly all sectors of the economy, as well as the way we travel, consume and organize our work. Many see a path of ‘green recovery’ as the best way out – but combining this new challenge with the well-known fight against energy poverty will need creativity and a diversity of solutions.

Africa in general, and especially Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA), is a future lab to show if and how it will be possible to achieve a number of sometimes conflicting goals posed by the ‘energy triangle‘ during the pandemic and beyond: namely, addressing the challenges of economic development and growth, energy security and access, and environmental sustainability – all at the same time.

Following the approach in this 2018 World Economic Forum paper, all actors will have to acknowledge the need to develop different transition paths and roadmaps for different country-specific and regional challenges, which will also reflect the complexity of the energy system.

Many transition stories focus on electrification in combination with renewables – which requires large infrastructure investments and stable economic and political conditions. Some of these approaches tend to follow the goal of sustainability at the expense of real and fast progress in personal safety and economic development.

A thorough and comprehensive system-dynamics modelling approach will not only consider the unintended consequences of desirable measures; it will also examine the desirable consequences of measures and means that seem to contradict the purist’s path of net-zero energy. Within this context, waste to energy (WtE) and LPG have been proposed as safe, quick and affordable functional equivalents of biomass for meeting household energy needs in order to accelerate energy access in SSA, where energy consumption is largely driven by traditional uses such as biomass for cooking, which constitutes 80% of residential consumption. Safe and healthy cooking remains a major challenge in SSA; besides the safety hazards associated with indoor pollution and forest degradation, the amount of unpaid time it takes (mostly women) to collect biomass fuel, but also for cooking itself, is a typical blindspot, reducing household productivity and increasing health risks.

The current situation is summarized by the OECD in its 2019 report, Achieving clean energy access in sub-Saharan Africa, which states: Only about half of the people in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) have access to electricity; only one third have access to clean cooking methods; and 13 countries in SSA have less than 25% access to electricity, compared to only one in developing Asia. In addition, the results of population growth in SSA will create a number of challenges in other areas like urban planning and infrastructure, leading to overcrowding, traffic congestion, pollution and localized resource depletion.

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600 million people in Sub-Saharan Africa lack access to electricity

Image: OECD / IEA

From a systemic perspective, climate change is a threat multiplier since Africa is particularly vulnerable to its effects. Nevertheless, oil and gas still play an important role in African energy development, since the transport sector heavily relies on oil (gasoline and diesel) and, to some extent, natural gas. The demand for natural gas is also driven by non-energy sectors, most importantly in the production of fertilizers in agriculture, demand for which is growing because of quickly decreasing soil productivity. According to the IEA’s 2019 Africa Energy Outlook: “The projected growth in oil demand is higher than that of China and second only to that of India as the size of the car fleet more than doubles (the bulk of which have low fuel efficiency) and liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) is increasingly used for clean cooking.”

When it comes to energy access, most of the progress depends on additional fossil fuel usage such as LPG and kerosene, since they are widely considered reasonable substitutes for wood fuel. The OECD argues that “LPG and improved biomass cookstoves are the two main routes to clean cooking access in sub-Saharan Africa”, but adds that electricity use for cooking “is largely impractical for most countries because of the lack of reliable electricity supply and the relative high cost of electric cookstove devices”.

In a new study on the role of fossil fuels in the energy transition, the Atlantic Council concludes that “oil and gas remain an important part of the energy mix, especially in developing regions. The International Energy Agency’s Sustainable Development Scenario (SDS) and the Shell Sky Scenario – both aggressive decarbonization forecasts – show an ongoing, long-term role for oil and gas”.

Waste not, want not

As an alternative way to accelerate access to energy, WtE was discussed and examined by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in a study last year. The report cites some of the challenges for WtE solutions that would have to be addressed in an ideal future energy mix:

1. Leapfrogging scenarios aside, developing countries should consider adopting a top-down approach to introduce the 3Rs (reduce, reuse, recycle) in their waste management systems before considering thermal WtE recovery options.

2. In addition to using advanced emission control technologies, thermal WtE plants would have to be managed well to avoid unsafe emissions.

3. As with all large investment projects, thermal WtE can potentially create lock-in effects that may lead to plant overcapacity and hamper efforts to reduce, reuse and recycle.

4. A legislative framework would be necessary, dealing with strategies for maintenance and plant decommission, a phase-out plan, pollution monitoring, guidelines on safe disposal of toxic by-products, medical monitoring and healthcare for plant workers and the local community, and guidelines for accident management.

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Improving energy access in Africa could be a load of rubbish

Image: UN Environment Programme

Despite these challenges, serious attempts to accelerate access to energy should not only consider WtE, but also new waste-to-fuel (WtF) solutions which recycle plastics into high-value fuel. These technologies have the potential to bridge the gap between urban and rural areas, as well as addressing several development and sustainability goals simultaneously.

Small-scale, systemic solutions should provide an ideal path into the energy future, especially within Africa’s comparably immature energy landscape. While there are still many constraints that will slow down this journey, governments in Africa and abroad will have to face the reality that the totality of these puristic solutions might not provide enough traction to reach the goals of the Paris Agreement and, at the same time, provide enough energy to serve the needs of growing populations and economies.

‘Less than perfect’ solutions that do not require a large amount of single-purpose infrastructure investments should be kept in the arsenal of policy planners and business leaders alike, even if they only serve as a resiliency reserve for potential future systemic shocks – like the one we are experiencing right now.

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