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HomeNewsElectricity is the key to Africa’s brighter future

Electricity is the key to Africa’s brighter future


IN THIS final instalment of  ‘Heart of Darkness: Why energy poverty is a security issue’ which we’ve been publishing to  mark the Global Warming Policy Foundation’s Energy for Africa initiative, Geoff Hill reiterates Africa’s fundamental problem – the access to cheap and reliable electricity the continent so desperately needs but that Western green ideology prevents.

Writing this paper has saddened me. As an African, I knew there was a problem, but not the extent to which it holds the continent and its people in poverty. Yes, I walk past generators in the street in Kampala, Abuja, or Lusaka, but then I fly to London or Johannesburg and it’s easy to forget those who live 24/7 without something we take for granted.

Life for Africans is getting better. But not fast enough. In September 2019, there were riots in Johannesburg as locals beat up migrants from the rest of Africa. Across much of the continent, South Africa is seen as a place of plenty. Compared with what some of the newcomers have at home, anywhere with lights and running water is a step up, but where does that leave the millions of unemployed in Cape Town, Durban and Johannesburg who feel their jobs are being taken by foreigners?

Barry Worthington has spent a lifetime in the power business. His current role as executive director at the US Energy Association in Washington has allowed him to engage with similar organisations across the world, including Africa.

‘For too long, aid has been about trying to fix a broken arm with aspirin,’ he told me. ‘Aid groups spend on water, schools and hospitals but rarely on the key problem, which is access to electricity. Until you get that right, the other things will alleviate misery, but they don’t give people a chance to move permanently out of poverty.’ He says even a short outage in America proved the point. ‘Your water goes off and you might phone the authorities, or you just sit it out for a few hours. The council forgets your bin one week and that makes you mad but you get by. But when the power goes off, people feel it immediately. You can’t work, there’s no TV, you might not be able to cook and your safety may be at risk if it happens at night. Now, imagine that outage lasting a lifetime.’

I asked him about Rick Perry’s idea that a lack of electricity was a factor in the war on terror.

‘Absolutely. And it’s so hard to understand why the World Bank, which is there to alleviate poverty, won’t fund projects using clean coal.’

Worthington supports a move to renewable energy, but says
it has to be in tune with local needs.

‘In eastern Europe, especially Ukraine where I’ve spent a lot of time, you can’t heat a city with anything but baseload power when it’s minus 40°C outside. And you also can’t have a shutdown at the generator. At those temperatures, hypothermia sets in and people will die. For now, the only option is coal and gas.’

Africa, he says, is different. ‘There are cold winters in some
regions, but not like Europe or America.’ But he compares living without electricity for years to an endless winter. ‘People lose hope. There’s no work, no way out, but they hear there’s a better world somewhere else. And so they move.’ Who wouldn’t do the same, he wonders. This, he points out, is why the world cannot ignore more than half a billion people in Africa who don’t have electricity.

George David Banks served as energy adviser to President Donald Trump and is now a research fellow at Columbia University. He believes the US was wrong to withdraw from the Paris Accord on climate change and, like Barry Worthington, he sees a vital role for renewables.

‘I really don’t care how you get the lights on in Africa, I just know we have to do it soon or there’s going to be a catastrophe.’ he says. ‘Put solar panels in the Sahara, build wind farms off Mombasa, use the gas from Mozambique and clean coal in Tanzania. But remember, once you give people electricity, you can’t take it away or there’ll be chaos. So we must do it in a way that is cheap and reliable.’

He thinks that African governments have an ‘absolute right’ to use their own resources, but they should also work to achieve the goals of the Paris deal. ‘Cutting down a forest for firewood or burning coal in a way that pollutes the air is not the best,’ he says. ‘Get baseload power. That means you need to start with gas or coal, but do it cleanly. The technology is there. Run cables so that every home and factory has power and you can then build an economy.’ And he thinks wind and solar can be used as a top-up.

‘Morocco has done great work on solar, and the whole science of how we generate power is changing. Renewables are getting better, batteries are storing more power, it’s all much cheaper than before and we have clean coal for baseload. Now we need political will, and aid money that doesn’t get diverted to some other cause.’

For those of us who lived through the 1960s, 70s and 80s, with coups and tyrannies across Africa, things are so much better now, and freedom is on the march across the continent. But looking down at night from a plane, there’s still that problem you can see on the cover of this essay: spots of light and mile after mile of darkness. Not long ago, Africans spoke of power coming from ‘the barrel of a gun’. Now we need it to come from the arms of a pylon. Lights for all. Fantastic? Not really. Go back a generation and much of Latin America was the same but they’re now close to full connectivity. China too.

But until it happens, those with nowhere else to turn will be
drawn to the dark side.

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Geoff Hill
Geoff Hill
Geoff Hill is a Zimbabwean writer working across Africa. Formerly special reports manager for Rupert Murdoch's flagship paper, the Australian, first non-American to win a John Steinbeck Award and author of the bestselling The Battle for Zimbabwe. A life-long conservationist, he has written extensively about the environment.

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