The economies of sub-Saharan Africa are growing fast. But this fact hides the realities of life for much of the region’s population. It’s staggering that 70 per cent of the population still has no access to electricity.That’s a stark statistic, as is the experience that lies behind it. When the sun goes down, people’s lives really do go dark, preventing activities we take for granted, like studying, working and socialising. Nearly a third of all health facilities lack the light needed for vital operations and can’t keep medicines cool, and two thirds of primary schools have no electricity.
Waiting for the existing inefficient central grid systems to reach people will leave too many in the dark for decades to come. We show in our new infographic, The low carbon energy lift, that decentralised renewable energy technologies can reach people much faster, offering immediate and tangible benefits. Solar light allows children to study longer and dramatically reduces the proportion of income that households have to spend on kerosene, as well as improving health by reducing pollution in the home. Low carbon mini grids have community benefits too, more cheaply powering health centres and schools, and supporting small businesses.
Over half the new energy capacity needs to be decentralised
Projections for achieving universal energy access in sub-Saharan Africa by 2030 (in line with the UN’s sustainable energy for all ambition) recognise this potential. They assume that over half the energy provision will have to be decentralised and made up of off grid and mini grid options, if there’s any chance of reaching the swathes of the population, many in rural areas, who have no electricity.
On-grid renewables are also a growing part of sub-Saharan Africa’s energy mix, providing jobs and new markets. Kenya and Ethiopia are planning dramatic increases in wind and geothermal energy over the next 20 years, and large scale solar power in Ghana is set to add 4,000 jobs to the economy. The manufacturing facilities being built in a number of countries also promise to increase in-country skills and capacity.
It’s not happening fast enough
But the challenges ahead for developing these technologies and realising this potential are significant. It’s easy to get carried away by stories of how low carbon decentralised energy can help to change lives and alleviate poverty, or to be excited by the assessments of sub-Saharan Africa’s unexploited renewables potential. But the progress isn’t happening fast enough.
Financing is a problem. Large scale renewable projects rely on private investment. But investors can be uncomfortable operating in an unfamiliar business context and uncertain about legislative and policy environments. Some work is underway to break down these barriers. African governments are responding to the latter need and agencies like DfID and the UN are working to address the former, running projects to identify and iron out some of the issues that private investors encounter.
For off grid renewables, national governments, aid agencies and multilateral institutions are being asked to recognise the potential of decentralised energy more clearly in their funding portfolios, but none of this activity has yet resulted in a significant leap forward. There are also the practical challenges of actually reaching people in more remote areas and enabling them to pay for the low carbon options.
A huge UK business opportunity
Tonight, the shadow secretary of state for business, innovation and skills, Chuka Umunna, is addressing a Green Alliance event on how British businesses can play their part in bringing about a low carbon energy revolution in sub-Saharan Africa. For UK companies with a strong foothold in the clean energy market, this is a great opportunity, taking their businesses to a market with huge growth potential, at the same time as contributing to the improvement of millions of people’s lives.
We’ll be tweeting from the event this evening from 7.30pm #lowcarbonafrica
The low carbon energy lift: powering faster development in sub-Saharan Africa, supported by Christian Aid, Greenpeace, RSPB and WWF UK is published today