One of outgoing US President Barack Obama’s initiatives for Africa was how to tackle the monumental problem of providing power to 620 million Africans who lacked access to electricity. His Power Africa Initiative in 2013 aimed to increase power supply in sub-Saharan Africa by adding more than 30,000 megawatts of electricity generation.
Electricity is important to Africa’s development. But the lack of wider access to power on the continent has been compounded by frequent blackouts – adversely affecting poverty reduction and development programmes. “There’s never been a country that has developed with intermittent power,” Jim Yong Kim, the President of the World Bank, has said.
Prolonged blackouts place businesses at financial risk and threaten vital services. The BBC reported last year that blackouts affecting Ghanaian hospitals resulted in “midwives [using] torches or the light on their mobile phones to deliver babies”. Then there is the problem of trying to store vaccines that are meant to be kept in cold surroundings but then there is no electricity to power fridges or freezers.
President John Mahama has spoken about Ghana’s energy crisis and the pressure on the government to meet rising electricity demands of 10 per cent annually. “The effects and frustrations posed by the power deficit are clearly felt in our work places, our homes, schools and hospitals. Big businesses and industries are also suffering and threatening to lay off workers,” he said.
Foreign investors are shying away from Africa because of the lack of regular electricity supply to power industries and businesses, adding financial burden that they are reluctant to take on. This is inhibiting economic growth in Africa and stunting its development.
President Obama’s Power Africa Initiative was hailed as a well-intentioned move to alleviate the problem. But there is one major drawback: he no longer backs using coal for electricity generation abroad unless there are carbon emission controls.
Not surprisingly, reports state that the programme has generated only 374 megawatts that are up and running so far, and companies excited about Power Africa, such as General Electric, have expressed concerns. John Rice, GE’s vice-chairman, said at a recent conference in Rwanda: “… if you look today at the number of megawatts that are actually on the grid directly related to the Power Africa initiative, it is very little.”
But many African countries have abundant coal reserves and are keen to exploit them to provide a cheap source of power that would supply electricity to millions more of their citizens as well as help industries and businesses function more effectively. Both the Energy Information Administration (EIA) and the International Energy Agency (IAE) are expecting Africa to increase its coal use. The EIA is projecting a rise of 70 per cent between 2010 and 2040 while the IEA is expecting an increase of almost 50 per cent between 2011 and 2035. Africa has 35 billion tons of recoverable coal reserves and at the current rate of consumption, they would last 122 years.
So, during the last US-Africa Leaders’ Summit in Washington in 2014, Obama was told that Africa would turn to coal for power, just as developed countries had done to fuel their industrialisation. Nigerian Finance Minister Kemi Adeosun told a recent joint meeting of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank: “We in Nigeria have coal but we have a power problem, yet we’ve been blocked because it is not green. There is some hypocrisy because we have the entire Western industrialisation built on coal energy.”
In Ghana, the coal-fuelled plant at Ekumfi in the Central Region, which will start taking shape in April 2017, has installed high efficiency, low emission (HELE), an extremely critical technology in the country’s coal stations. The government has set out a plan to double the country’s electricity capacity by 2020 and stimulate economic growth.
Thus, there is an urgent need for transferring technology and providing financial support for low emission technologies to Africa. Apart from HELE there is the carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology that can capture up to 90 per cent of the carbon dioxide emissions produced from the use of fossil fuels in electricity generation and industrial processes, preventing the carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere.
Even Bill Gates, who is investing $2 billion in supporting green energy technology and research to deal with the effects of climate change, has not backed calls to divest from fossil fuel companies responsible for carbon emissions. It is hoped that there will be political will, creativity and worldwide economic support so that Africa, too, can benefit from new technology to empower citizens and hit climate targets. It is all about striking the right balance in the use of coal to ensure poverty is alleviated while foreign investors are not burdened with the perennial problem of power failure.