Energy Poverty Is Killing Africans-Renewables Are Insufficient

Access to electricity for sub-Saharan nations is abysmal. A leading factor in the prevalence of poverty and hunger. (Courtesy of researchgate.net)

W. Gyude Moore published a useful article on the vital need for African nations to produce more energy: On the question of Africa’s Energy Poverty

However, I extend the implications of his analysis of energy poverty to its full impact on the lives of hundreds of millions of Africans. To wit: energy poverty is the leading cause of preventable deaths in Africa. Western political-financial elites are using their pseudo concern to “save the world” from climate change, to prevent African nations from producing vital energy from their abundant natural resources of hydrocarbons. In effect, attempting to deny nations suffering from a dearth of electricity, the right to develop their own energy sources sufficient to industrialize their economies. Hunger and poverty will not be eliminated on the African continent without nation-wide grids providing abundant and accessible electrical power.

Renewables are not capable of powering an industrialized economy. Their low energy flux density, the concentration of heat-power needed to transform minerals, is inadequate. Intense levels of heat and energy are required to convert ores into working metals. Nuclear power is orders of magnitude superior to other forms of energy in satisfying these requirements. Oil, gas, and hydro are energy sources that can be used in transition to nuclear energy. Yet, African nations are given diktats to not develop their sovereign resources and instead rely on inferior energy sources, displaying their disdain for their sovereignty and the welfare of their citizens. Thus, ensuring that African nations will never be able to become manufacturing based industrialized economies capable of eradicating poverty and hunger. One can make the argument that denying African nations this required energy capacity is a new form of colonialism, to keep them undeveloped. It is the effect, if not the intent.

Excerpts from Moore’s article: In Resolving Africa’s Energy Poverty – ALL Options Remain on the Table

Africa’s energy poverty is now a national security crisis. The region’s large and growing population places relentless pressure on small and dwindling resources, exacerbating the crisis of diminished state capacity. The specter of social and political disruption haunts regional stability, from coastal West Africa to the Great Lakes. Africa’s poverty translates into weak economic resilience and heightened vulnerability to shocks – internal and external. The recent spate of global crises has only worsened the problem. After decades of improvement, the World Bank reports that inequality is rising – that the global poor bore the brunt of the economic scarring of the pandemic, with incomes falling in the poorest countries more than they did in rich countries. “As a result, the income losses of the world’s poorest were twice as high as the world’s richest, and global inequality rose for the first time in decades.” These losses are most pronounced in Sub-Saharan Africa where “incomes are falling further behind the rest of the world.”  

Nothing aggravates this condition more than the continent’s persistent energy poverty. It is thus a positive sign when at this year’s IMF/World Bank Spring meetings, the World Bank and the African Development bank agreed to invest in providing electricity to 300 million Africans by 2030. But the announcement raises a lot of questions, including Todd Moss’s: “What will the Bank do differently?” If the idea is to double down on renewables alone, this only accentuates the glaring divergence between what Africa needs and the “solution” the Bank is offering. In times of existential crises, no options are left off the table. Unless Africa increases the diversity and complexity of its exports, its poverty will persist…

Moore makes the decisive point below that even when African nations establish policies to process their own resources, to ban the export of raw resources: they don’t have the energy for smelting, transforming the ore..

No Balanced Energy mix, No Industrialization

Africa’s export diversification is inextricably tied to its infrastructure – mainly power – endowment. Namibia, Zimbabwe, the DRC and others have all passed laws banning the export of unprocessed minerals. The legitimate attempts by these governments to ensure that their minerals are extracted and processed “in a way that helps [them] realize the full economic benefits of their resources’, should be applauded.”

But the viability of these bans remains contested, and these efforts are very likely to stall, since insufficient smelting capacity has led to repeated issuance of waivers for similar bans in the DRC.

About 80% of global energy consumption is tied to transport and heating (residential and industrial). This focus here is industrial heating (100 to 2000 C). The absence of adequate power supply to smelt ores in a commercially viable way has condemned the continent’s commodity exporters to ship their raw ore to China or India. South Africa, the continent’s most complex commodity exporting economy exports its chromite ore to China for processing into ferrochrome, which is used to manufacture corrosion, acid and heat-resistant steel.

Or take aluminum – the metal that is produced from bauxite. Guinea has the world’s largest bauxite reserves at over 7 billion metric tons. However, aluminum making is one of the most energy-intensive processes in the world. “Only paper, gasoline, steel, and ethylene manufacturing consume more total energy in the United States than aluminum. Aluminum production is the largest consumer of energy on a per-weight basis and is the largest electric energy consumer of all manufactured products.”[xv] In Guinea and Sierra Leone, converting raw bauxite into intermediate metals will require prodigious amounts of installed and dispatchable power. Renewables have struggled to be cost competitive with burning fossil fuels to smelt ores. Even the most basic levels of beneficiation (removing impurities and improving the grade of the ore) often require electricity endowment that many commodity exporters lack. Unless Africa is able to increase the availability of cost-competitive energy at a scale, adding value to its mineral exports will remain a pipe drain. If the average Ethiopian continues to consume a mere 79.25 kWh per year, Ethiopia will struggle to match Bangladesh (497 kWh per year) in apparel manufacturing. If the average Nigeria consumes only about 150 kwH per year, Nigerian firms will struggle to compete with their Vietnamese counterparts  (2450 KwH per year)

Ethiopia’s Grand Renaissance Dam (GERD) will be a game changer for East Africa; generating 5,150 megawatts of electricity

Fossil Fuels (Including Coal)  and the Existential Question:

While Europe, China and India pursue increasing coal as an energy source, African nations are intentionally denied lending for development of coal powered plants, even though coal is abundant on the continent.

At this year’s Spring Meetings,  “The Big Shift Global”, a global movement against fossil fuels, protested against the Bank’s financing fossil fuels. Their best intentions notwithstanding, this activism condemns Africa and Africans to indigence, since the countries adding the most fossil fuel capacity do not borrow from the World Bank. This earnest, but misguided, activism simply provides a convenient cover for rich countries’ World Bank executive directors who want to push the bank away from financing natural gas in Africa.

Increasing Africa’s energy per capita consumption is an existential question – from keeping South Sudanese children alive in extreme heat to earning more from African exports. African governments ought to understand that outsourcing existential questions to outsiders whose intentions are, at best, ambivalent is a dereliction of duty to their people.

When coal-powered electricity is rising in prominence in the world’s largest industrial countries, it is unreasonable to expect Africans to “save the world”, by sacrificing their poverty reduction and industrialization goals on the unrealistic “hope” of an all-renewable energy mix. Every form of energy generation must remain on the table. Where viable, nuclear energy ought to be pursued too – whether the partner of choice is China or Russia, especially since Rosatom and the African Commission on Nuclear Energy (AFCONE) have approved a plan for cooperation. China has made progress on small modular reactors; this option and all others must remain on the table...

Both the World Bank and some private capital are hesitant to extend financing for new fossil fuel. Because this is a national security imperative, African governments should be prepared to make hard choices about using domestic resources, making cuts to spending elsewhere to fund these plants.

For economies where coal power plants are viable, governments must make demonstrable efforts – setting aside land, conducting feasibility studies, and mapping the coal value chain for these plants. For countries where the option is natural gas – the same processes should be set in motion.

Read my earlier posts below:

South Africa Energy Minister Rejects Western Dictates & Hypocrisy Against Africa’s Use of Energy Resources

“Electricity is the lifeblood of a nation” Nuclear Energy Can Be A Solution To The Continent’s Dearth of Electricity

GERD: Utilizing the Blue Nile to Create Energy for Development in Ethiopia & The Horn of Africa

Lawrence Freeman is a Political-Economic Analyst for Africa, who has been involved in economic development policies for Africa for over 30 years. He is a teacher, writer, public speaker, and consultant on Africa. Mr. Freeman strongly believes that economic development is an essential human right. He is also the creator of the blog:  lawrencefreemanafricaandtheworld.com that has hundreds of articles for you to review.

3 thoughts on “Energy Poverty Is Killing Africans-Renewables Are Insufficient

  1. Factual: “Energy poverty is the leading cause of preventable deaths in Africa. Western political-financial elites are using their pseudo concern to “save the world” from climate change, to prevent African nations from producing vital energy from their abundant natural resources of hydrocarbons. In effect, attempting to deny nations suffering from a dearth of electricity, the right to develop their own energy sources sufficient to industrialize their economies. Hunger and poverty will not be eliminated on the African continent without nation-wide grids providing abundant and accessible electrical power.”

  2. The realities of the position canvassed in the article are very much in our faces. This is one more important and positive pressure for Africa to move from the rhetoric to tangible projects; from policy to practice. A united Africa on this path stands a vantage negotiation position with the renewed scrambles for the continent’s raw mineral resources. There is never a better time to address energy stress issues clogging Africa’s infrastructure development.

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