Rolling blackouts, the Medupi coal plant and other reflections on the energy crises affecting African countries

To those (like myself) that try to keep up with African affairs (let alone those that live in Africa), it is a well known fact that numerous countries on the continent face serious problems with the electricity supply. News often make reference to this recurring situation – and when they don’t, it is sometimes because the state of affairs is taken as a given, and therefore not news at all. These are some examples from different parts of the continent, from these past two months:
Hudin and Elia, from Côte d’Ivoire, both make reference on their blog posts and tweets about the délestages (rolling blackouts – a word that you seem to learn soon when in Côte d’Ivoire). This February entry on Twiga (which I somehow missed at the time) is particularly interesting for it reflects how disruptive these energy crises are, especially for countries where this did not use to be a common occurrence:

(At a meeting to address the situation after the political crisis from last February) the audience was allowed to ask questions, but hardly any of them were directed at the préfet or commented on his words: what interested people most were the times of the power cuts, and details about the restoration of regular power. The préfet was not pleased.
Several people complained about the increase in crime during the night and many others proposed ideas to minimize the length of the cuts; others gave a detailed assessment of how the lack of electricity and power is bad for people’s the physical and pscychological health; others insisted on how the workers productivity is affected by the lack of power and the lack of sleep…
People were truly angry, but not at the President dissolving the most important institutions in the country, but about being without a fan and a proper shower.

Côte d’Ivoire however is not the only West African country facing electricy supply problems however. As blogged before here, one of the demands of the Enough is Enough movement in Nigeria related to power:

(d) Electricity: “6,000 megawatts will not solve the electricity problems of Nigeria , but it’s a good start. In any case, it was a promise made to us. Nigerians desperately and urgently need power for the industrial and production centres. We are asking that, before the end of June, now that the president is directly in charge of power, a clear path towards solving the power problem be presented to the public.”

A response to this (of sorts) was out last Friday, when it was known that:

The committee on power created by Acting President Goodluck Jonathan to solve the problems in the sector has said it will make public its blue print within 30 days.

Ghana, and especiall the capital Accra, is also in the middle of a power crisis, which is not likely to end anytime soon:

The Electricity Company of Ghana says the current erratic power supplies being experienced in parts of Accra would continue for at a least a year.
Residents have complained about the unpredictable nature of power supply, worsened lately as a result of repair works.
Whilst some complain of blown-up household appliances resulting from power surges, others say current levels are so low they cannot power high-energy machines.

Power crises however, are not limited to West Africa, nor these are the worst cases. On April 12th for example, a protest was staged in Zimbabwe, in which:

approximately 1,000 members of Women and Men of Zimbabwe Arise (WOZA) marched to the offices of the Zimbabwe Electricity Supply Authority (ZESA) offices in Bulawayo. Their aim was to deliver yellow cards to the electricity service provider for poor service and high tariffs…
The ‘yellow card’ for ZESA comes with a warning to shape up their service during the month of May or face a ZERO service ZERO bill boycott of payments from 1st June 2010. Members using fixed meters advised ZESA that the current service only deserved a US$5 payment rather than the current level of payment calculated for a full service.

But it is Zanzibar (Tanzania) that has faced the most serious electrity crisis this year, with a power blackout that lasted for three months and was finally solved at the beginning of March. The blackout seriously affected the economy and tourism in the island, and its consequences are likely to be felt even after supply is restored. A particularly sever blackout that results from the poor maintenance of the 40-year-old cable connecting Zanzibar to the mailand but that, as Maura R. O’Connor writes, is also

indicative of the larger energy crisis in Tanzania as a whole. Access to electricity is just 10 percent nationwide with a mere 2 percent of the population able to access power in rural areas, according to the World Bank. Power outages are weekly if not daily events.

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John Paul poses behind unrefrigerated food on his grill stand in the seaside Forodhani Gardens of Stone Town, Zanzibar (Katrina Manson/Reuters)Enlarge Photo
Problems with electricity supply therefore affect a large number of African countries – a situation which is particularly serious given that reliable power supply and suitable infrastructures are crucial for economic development. This article for example notes how potential investors are scared away from Tanzania (and no doubt other countries too) precisely because of the lack of reliable electricity supply. And this is the case not only for countries with chronic energy problems, but also for Africa’s leading economies like South Africa. With much of the economic development of African countries hinging on well maintained infrastructures and reliable power supply, important questions need to be asked, regarding the state of the energy sector, the necessary reforms, and how to address the existing problems. Continuing with the South African case, for example, this article on today’s Daily Maverick reflects on the future of ESKOM – the country’s electricity company – and on a possible restructuring which may involve its splitting-up and part-privatisation (denied by Eskom). Similarly, a change of the ownership structure is also on the cards for the Kenya Power and Lighting Co. Ltd (KPLC), and, as pointed out above, Nigeria is embarged on a thourough reform of its electricity and oil sectors, with a new minister Deizani Allison-Madueke (a woman for the first time) in charge of it.
untitledBut beyond the necessary restructuring and shape-up of energy sectors across African countries, more important questions need to be answered regarding the long term prospects for energy production and supply on the continent. Questions that cannot ignore the relevance of the challenge posed by the environmental impact of energy production and by climate change. We have blogged before here about some of the options available to various African countries, from solar power being generated on the Sahara region, to different infrastructures being built with World Bank and donors support – for example the Inga Dam project in DRC – but which are not free from various problems. Energy is crucial for economic development; but the long-term sustainability and welfare of African societies cannot ignore the importance of making this power generation compatible with environmental protection. The contradiction between these two necessities were highlighted a few weeks ago when South Africa received a $3.75 billion loan from the World Bank to finance the construction of the huge 4,800 MW Medupi coal plant (7th largest in the world).
This decision has been celebrated by some commentators who see the plant as necessary “so that we do not derail the country’s economic growth and development”. Others however see more than shady areas in how Eskom (state controlled) is going about building Medupi, with the contract being awarded to a company (Hitachi Africa) in which the ruling party (ANC) has a 25% stake. Environmental critics also point out that Medupi will mean a 7% increase in the total of South Africa’s CO2 emissions (already very hich), and that the plant alone will emit more than 115 other countries. All of this made the decision a very controversial one when it was taken, on April 8th, and the UK, the US and the Netherlands all abstained from supporting the decision citing environmental and other concerns. While the World Bank decision is indeed controversial, and all the environmental concerns are serious, that developed nations like the UK (where a coal plant Kingsnorth has also received the green light recently) cite environmental reasons to deny South Africa or other developing nations the means to economic growth based on environmental concerns looks a bit too much like self-interested hypocresy. As this article on the Guardian CiF notes, it is only these modern, highly efficient and lower-emissions plants that can be fitted with carbon capture and storage technology (CSS) when it becomes available. Coal is still an important energy source for developing nations and will continue to be so for the next decades. As A Bombastic Element notes on a very succint and interesting entry on this debate notes:

it boils down to a conundrum of reliable coal energy by a developing world versus climate change policies constraining the use of coal by the developed world, and, from the discussion above, it appears a realistic World Bank equates electricity to development and therefore can’t short change Africa of what’s left of the coal age.

Similarly, Simone Haysom on a balanced and insightful piece for the Mail&Guardian Though Leader section, concludes:

Historical responsibility, definitions of economic necessity and national pride flavour these issues differently for all of us. But at the end of the day the climate is a less discriminating mistress and to her dull palate a tonne of CO2 from South Africa tastes just the same as a tonne from anywhere else. The Medupi decision should be greeted with gravity by both its supporters and its detractors. From now on there can absolutely no excuse for the government not to put all its money, mouth and muscle behind renewables and green jobs.

The Medupi plant decision thus, is far from perfect and it raises important questions regarding the transparency of the operation, the massive debt which it will mean for South Africa, and its negative environmental impact. But energy supply is a serious problem in South Africa (and many other African countries, as we have seen), that needs to be addressed to secure economic development. For the West (who have based our economic growth on highly polluting industries, as well as exploiting the rest of the world’s natural and human resources) to resist South Africa’s (and other countries from the South) demands for reliable energy because they are not environmentally perfect is hypocritical. We must address our own polluting industries and unsustainable lifestyles before we can tell African countries how to manage their economic growth and power generation.

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2 thoughts on “Rolling blackouts, the Medupi coal plant and other reflections on the energy crises affecting African countries

  1. Zanzibar hots mayo 13, 2010 / 11:38 am

    Africa is the perfect place to make use of solar power to create energy, due to the brightness and the large amounts of sun it receives daily. It would be good if something this beneficial for the people and also friendly to the environment could be put in place.

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