AFSIC Growth Panel - Leapfrogging- When will the Electricity Grid become Obsolete in Africa?

Susie Scannelli Cook, Empower’s Chief Investment and Legal Officer, spoke at AFSIC’s Conference in London on 12 October 2021 on a panel discussion discussing the long-term viability of the national grid systems in Africa, moderated by Tony Tiyou of Renewables in Africa.

The world continues to have quite a polarised view when it comes to climate change – fossil fuels are continually cited to be the ‘bad guys’ and renewable energy is our saintly savour. It is generally agreed that we need to act now to address climate change and the effects of global warming but only a measured and systematic approach will achieve this goal. Whether it is achievable within the published timeframes is outside the scope of this short opinion piece. However, it clearly is only a balanced approach that will drive change forward at a realistic pace.

Empower is following a systematic approach, addressing the need to accelerate its impact within the sector of small and medium-sized African businesses moving them to semi-autonomous solar PV solutions to fuel their business needs. Simply put, by decreasing these industrials’ reliance on the national grid (and with that the necessary addiction to back-up diesel power generators), Empower is helping to drive the decentralised power sector forward in Africa – and the more of these businesses that can become semi-autonomous with their power generation, the greater the impact and the less reliance on the grid and the gensets.

Africa in numbers tells a shocking tale. Africa generates just 3% of global electricity and, of that, half is generated in South Africa and Egypt. However, this does not mean that Africa does not need power – it means that Africans are not getting access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy (SDG7). The current average consumption of an African is only around 500 kWh, compared to about 13,000 kWh in the USA and around half that number in Europe. The total installed capacity in Africa is estimated to be 234GW but set to increase sharply. Africa is already very populous, with around 1 billion people, and its population is predicted to explode, with a projection of 2.5 billion Africans by 2050. This means that, on a per capita basis, the growth trajectory for access to power is on a sharp upward curve.

Shutting down the national grid and relying on decentralised power (or failing to decarbonise the grid and offset grid emissions) will not achieve energy security for Africa. But allowing decentralised power to go from strength to strength will, provided that the roll out can be undertaken within a fair and properly regulated environment which is spread evenly across rural and urban areas of Africa. Many governments on the continent are embracing decentralised power especially within the off-grid sector in rural communities, as this can have a significant reach in local communities and transform the lives of many. It can also remove part of the financial burden off government balance sheets making it a popular vote-winning strategy for incumbent governments. However, without proper investment to strengthen national grid systems and to improve transmission lines and the distribution of generated power, the outcome will be a further imbalance of access to energy. It is a race against the clock – African populations are increasing at a rapid rate and the demand for electrification is clear. Failing to invest and strengthen the national grids, the distribution and transmission lines and allowing for decentralised power to take up the slack will be a fatal error of judgment and, at all costs, must be avoided.