Addressing Africa's Energy Needs

September 16, 2010
Windmills Generate Electricity in South Africa

About the Author: Mohammed Motiwala serves as an Economic Officer in the Bureau of Economic, Energy, and Business Affairs.

On September 15, the State Department's Economics and Energy Bureau (EEB) welcomed author and journalist Robert Bryce to speak on helping Africa meet its energy needs. Currently hundreds of millions of Africans have no access to electricity. And without this access, Africans are without the key prerequisite for economic development and poverty alleviation.

What's the answer to this problem? Wind farms in Angola? Solar panels in the Sahara?

Bryce doesn't think so. To him, fossil fuels remain the most realistic short- to medium-term source of steady power to a continent that is hungry for it. The problems with popular renewable energies like wind and solar is that they are intermittent, says Bryce: There is no power when the wind is not blowing or when the sun is not shining. There is also the issue of scale. Bryce noted that for a nuclear power plant to generate 2,700 MW of electricity, a land footprint the size of Manhattan would be required. To generate the same amount of power from wind would need a footprint the size of Rhode Island, and a bio-fuels plant would require an even larger one.

For longer term needs, Bryce favors nuclear power. He is particularly excited about new, small modular reactors (SMRs), which the Secretary of Energy has described as "plug and play" reactors. These SMRs, compared to traditional reactors, would have lower upfront capital costs and would potentially have few proliferation concerns.

As for the impact of fossil fuel use on climate change, Bryce says he's still undecided about the data. But he has accused developed countries of "carbon dioxide colonialism" for demanding that developing countries reduce their carbon footprint before industrializing. He says it is wrong for a country like the United States, which in many cases produces 50 times more CO2 per capita than many Africa countries, to object to funding fossil fuel projects in Africa (as it did earlier this year when South Africa applied for a loan through the World Bank).

So what do DipNote readers think? How do we work with our African partners to help them balance environmental considerations with obtaining the energy they need and deserve?



New Mexico, USA
September 16, 2010

Eric in New Mexico writes:

Fossile fuels will dominate because they are a source of state's revenue, not just an energy source.

The Sudan situation exemplifies the quandry of this debate you raise in dividing the nation and maintaining some measure of wealth sharing among the population.

As for "plug and play" or as we PC users are more want to say "plug and pray", well I think you have a similar situation with nuclear energy.

Pray that a terrorist doesn't use it as a convieniant WMD all by itself, forget proliferation for a second here and think about the kind of opportunity you want to give them. Which is none at all.

The key is in delivering energy independance to every houshold.

You don't need to connect everyone to a grid.

In fact, all you need is a mass produced solar kit to retro-fit on whatever dwelling people call home with an inverter and batt. storage that will give a family about a three-day capacity for daily electric needs.

A wind driven water pump for a well can double as an electric generator in the same manner.

See the monet spent just trying to connect everyone to a cental grid would be more expensive that the block grants to citizens to retro-fit their homes.

And if you were to put up a grid, those same homes would feed it as their surpless power generation would allow beyond battery storage capacity.

So, I urge folks to rethink this a bit and talk to the eco-home builders in my state for further details.

Frankly I think it will be the fastest, most efficiant way to get Africa "powered up".

Brandon P.
Illinois, USA
September 16, 2010

Brandon P. in Illinois writes:

The problem with power in Africa, generally speaking, is a lack of access, not just a lack of supply. For the predominantly rural population, there simply is no such thing as an electricity grid to tap into, so it is not so simple as building a few coal or gas fired power plants in order to solve the problem.

In truth, a combination of all energy sources is needed. In rural areas, solar energy has powered computers and televisions to provide unprecedented educational opportunities for villagers. In other areas, wind power indeed is the solution. For the heavily urbanized cities in the continent, maybe coal power plants are an answer, but they only serve to further pollute the environment beyond the local damage that has already been done. Indeed, Cairo is the continent's largest city, and pollution is a rampant problem in large part due to an over-dependence on fossil fuels. Cairo has responded by planting 500,000 trees and vastly increasing the continent's only metro service, but beyond that, there actually is an enormous abundance of untouched land in close proximity to the urban Nile valley, with over 300 sunny days per year. Solar would be a perfect fit not just for Cairo but for all of Egypt and most of Saharan Africa as well.

September 16, 2010

Lisa writes:

Well, maybe this is simplistic, but I'd like to see Africa leapfrog over oil dependence and all the political baggage that comes with it.

They'd need some foreign aid to accomplish it, but I'd like to see them use solar energy with lithium battery back-up, in separate small-scale grids rather than a large integrated system.

In a world with increasing terrorism, and with our growing understanding of natural hazards such as solar flares, the centralization of a large grid has some vulnerabilities that I think off-set the conveniences. Smaller grids provide a redundancy and resiliency that I think is more appropriate for Africa.

I think theft would be a problem when systems are first installed, but that issue would decrease as the coveted technology became more wide-spread. Making systems to serve a small neighborhood at a time might help by making the battery pack too heavy to easily move.

Solar power wouldn't meet all the needs of all of Africa if their 'needs' were the same as ours in the US. But right now, they function without electricity, their 'needs' for electricity are zero. So if they start out aiming for very basic requirements for all (instead of full US-style luxuries for a few), a solar-predominant grid would probably be up to the task.

I could imagine you might start in a town by providing the local school with what would in the US be a home-system. Give them lights. The next priority would be to power any water-system that currently uses fossil fuels for pumping. After that, home systems or neighborhood systems that could power lights (preferably efficient LEDs) and a cooking hot-plate--the search for cooking fuel causes some deforestation, so this would have fringe benefit in protecting the environment.

I would think that these very basic and simple things would make a huge difference in quality of life without exceeding what could be delivered by a solar/battery based infrastructure.

After water and an alternative to fire for cooking, you'd have to ask the locals what they'd want next. I'm guessing power to run refrigerators, but they may have other ideas.

Pranav G.
New Jersey, USA
September 17, 2010

Pranav G. in New Jersey writes:

Thanks for starting this discussion. Africa has a lot of natural resources--sun, wind, water--which will need to be harnessed to solve the energy shortage. A "micro" rather than a macro-solution is desirable to get even the most remote villages out of the dark. Many new technologies are being developed to harness this micro-energy. More resources can be helpful to test and distribute these new technologies.

United States
September 17, 2010

O.C. in the U.S.A. writes:

I agree with Pranav and Eric. Low tech solutions would initially meet the needs of small villages. As energy independence increases and energy investment improves, villagers could sell their unused energy back to the national grid, thereby supporting their household. As villages collectively sell their unused energy, money could be used to hire a teacher, build a small school/clinic/meeting place where the communities needs are adressed. The large scale grids are too expensive in the short term. Start with small projects and goals. ie. a solar panel and wind generator for every village member then add on gradually. You can train the village population to install these systems who will in turn, install them in the adjacent village. It ain't rocket science. It just takes skill, human energy, an overall plan and someone hawkishly watching where and how every penny is spent. The State Department can ask Mr. Rockefeller to fund a small scale project. I volunteer to get the school up and running. maybe Eric will volunteer his skills for a small price.

United States
September 17, 2010

O.C. in the U.S.A. writes:

If the American government bypassed the Federal Reserve, printed interest free green energy money and got a percentage of company output, they could easily pay to install solar panels in Africa. Kind of like a TWOFER. Two solar panels for the price of one. The additional solar panels would help Africa maintain a low tech, regional grid. The solar panel industry would simultaneously spark a solar panel industry in America that could serve both countries. Eventually surplus energy could be sold back to America which could help develop Africa's future infrastructure.

pamela g.
West Virginia, USA
September 19, 2010

Pamela G. in West Virginia writes:

We definitely need to support nuclear power as a quick way to bring sustainable energy to Africa but in return they must be willing to have on-going world oversight of all projects to protect the world.


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