Africa’s Untapped Energy Potential – Ashir Daya –

690 million… that is the number of people who live in Africa without access to electricity, amounting to roughly half of the global total of people without access to electricity. Sub-Saharan Africa alone as a region supports 620 million people without access to electricity, where supply is so low that electricity consumption per capita is, on average, less than that needed to power a 50-watt light bulb continuously.

Figure 1 illustrates the population sizes of people without access to electricity across Africa. Efforts to promote electrification are growing, but this is outpaced by the population growth of the continent. To put this in context, the population of Sub-Saharan Africa has increased from 270 million in 2000 to 940 million in 2013. The current electricity demand in Africa is around 605 terawatt hours (TWh) and is predicted to increase to around 1600 TWh by 2040.

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Figure 1: Africa’s electricity distribution demographics

Whilst two-thirds of Africa’s population do not have access to modern energy, Africa is a continent that has abundant energy resources. The effective development of these energy resources, could unlock huge gains across the economy, since every advanced economy requires secure access to modern energy to underpin its development and growing prosperity. Even though the Sub-Saharan economy has more than doubled since 2000 to reach $2.7 trillion, this is still lower than just the German economy alone, which stands at $3.2 trillion. Figure 2 presents the relationship that exists between electricity consumption and a countries GDP. This emphasises the importance of the electrification of the continent in order for it to be able to compete at a global level.

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Figure 2: The relationship between electricity consumption and GDP.

How can Africa’s demand be met?
At present, 75% of Africa’s generation capacity comes from South Africa, Morocco, Egypt, Libya and Algeria. Interestingly enough, this capacity is not generated by means of hydropower, which is actually considered one of Africa’s best energy sources. Although hydropower has long been a part of the energy systems of several countries such as DRC, Angola and Ethiopia, very little of the overall potential has so far been tapped. It is estimated that only 7% of Africa’s hydropower potential has been harnessed, compared to 33% for Europe and 65% globally. Africa is well endowed with hydropower potential; however, exploitation of this potential has historically been hampered by a mismatch between demand and supply that has not been able to be overcome by long-distance transmission line infrastructure. The DRC has 50 percent of sub-Saharan Africa’s technically exploitable hydro-capacity potential, with the next four countries (Angola, Cameroon, Ethiopia, and Gabon) contributing a further 33 percent. It is reported that the total hydropower potential of the DRC alone is sufficient to provide more power than what Africa presently consumes, and would be able to provide half of the entire continents demand if the projection of 1600 TWh in 2040 is realised.

The Grand Inga Project
Currently, the biggest hydroelectric project in Africa under construction is the Inga III project in DRC, which South Africa is both a partner and a major client. The project will be constructed on the site of two existing dams on the lower Congo River in western DRC. This project is set to deliver 4,800 MW, and thus has the potential to make a massive difference to Sub-Saharan Africa. It also has the potential to produce this electricity at costs lower than what current coal fired power stations do. Inga III will require $12 billion in total, with dam construction costs estimated at $8.5 billion of this amount. However, it is envisioned that Inga III is only a stepping stone to a greater vision; the Grand Inga project.

Inga Falls on the Congo River is a group of rapids in the latter portion of the Livingstone Falls, where the mean annual flow rate is 42,000 cubic metres per second. Given this flow rate and the 96 metre fall, the Inga Falls alone has the potential to generate almost 40, 000 MW. If completed, the Grand Inga project would be the world’s largest hydropower station, at almost double the capacity of the current record holder, the Three Gorges facility on the Yangtze River in China, which is rated at 22,500 MW. The cost of the Grand Inga project has been estimated at $100 billion, however, many feel this cost is severely underestimated given the cost of the Inga III project alone. The project was set to get underway in 2016, but the World Bank later withdrew the funding following disagreements over the project.

One of the major problems in attaining this funding is the political instability of the DRC, which is wracked with conflict and external investors fear this political and commercial risk. However, the Grand Inga project is only feasible as a regional project with distribution to multiple countries. This would allow countries to share the financial burden and ensure absorption of the generated electricity, since actual demand in most African countries is so small that many generating projects will provide more power than the whole country needs.

Efficient long distance transmission will also be a pivotal aspect of the project’s success. This is due to the concern that giant hydro schemes are the wrong kind of development for a largely rural continent that lacks power grids to distribute power from a central location to its inhabitants. Without a plan to develop these grids in Congo as well as the client countries, it is likely that large masses of people would still not see this electricity.

The African economy is on a steady growth path that sees the demand for electricity soar in the next decade. In order for Africa to compete on the global economic market, electrification of the continent is essential.  It is accepted worldwide that huge infrastructure projects such as the Grand Inga would create fantastic opportunities for corruption, especially in one of Africa’s most politically volatile and corruption plagues countries. Furthermore, transmission from this central source would occur through some of Africa’s most politically unstable regions, where its attraction as a target during political conflict would increase due to multiple countries being dependent on it.

The benefit of such projects to “light up Africa” are undeniable and it is technologically feasible, the real question that remains is whether Africa as a continent is able to unify in this venture for the greater good of its people as well the continents overall economic prosperity.



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