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The challenge of energy infrastructure in Africa

28 November 2022

The key resilience and sustainable infrastructure issues of the continent civil engineers need to know.

The challenge of energy infrastructure in Africa
Micro energy grids, like solar panels, are good but have problems of scalability. Image credit: Shutterstock

The global population has just reached eight billion.

Depending on where a person is born, the outlook for their prosperity and that of their family and friends may look very uncertain.

The future is much clearer and brighter for those born in a part of the world that has had the luxury of basic infrastructure – like energy grids and water systems - that enable growth and prosperity.

Of the eight billion people, over 10% representing 900 million people are still not connected to an electricity grid.

What is likely more shocking is that around 600 million of these people are living in sub-Saharan Africa.

When circling back to the eight-billionth person, to have a 7.5% chance of being born into an energy isolated area forms a stark contrast and paradigm for those fortunate to live in a country or region where this is simply not even a fleeting thought.

For those that are fortunate to be grid-connected, there are widely varying levels of coverage.

Increasing numbers of people endure rolling blackouts and grid stability issues, so the scale of the task ahead is truly difficult to comprehend.

Energy as enabler

Of the infrastructure classes, energy infrastructure is seen as the most enabling.

Energy in its most basic form brings light to remote areas, one of the fundamentals for education and development in its widest sense.

Micro-grids - mainly based on small-scale solar, run-of-the-river hydro and other small factor generation - have been successful in many areas.

However, they have limitations and grid-scale energy is needed to support significant growth.

Africa’s conundrum

Africa, especially sub-Sahara Africa, desperately needs domestic energy.

Yet it faces a conundrum: it has an abundance of onshore and offshore natural resources.

But most of it is exported rather than consumed domestically.

One of its largest natural resources is natural gas.

This is of international importance for the global energy transition and energy security, and has long been the subject of substantial investment and development all around the continent.

As an energy source, natural gas is supremely flexible and suitable for a wide range of industrial uses and well as power generation, most of which can be aligned with carbon capture technologies.

However, unlocking the potential of this as well as other technologies, such as hydro, to stimulate growth domestically has been extremely slow for a multitude of reasons.

These include:

  • Inability to secure commercial off-take agreements. There is large investor interest but the end of chain fails due to either insufficient payment terms, or governments’ weak balance sheets being unable to support sovereign guarantees.
  • Development delays. Navigating through governmental approvals associated with permitting and consents is time intensive. Pre-investment stages often span different election cycles and their respective changes in policy.
  • Enabling infrastructure burden. The distances needed to transport or distribute energy from where it is sourced to where it is needed are often vast. This requires enabling infrastructure packages such as transmission lines and roads. These often dwarf the infrastructure costs directly associated with direct energy production and generation assets.

Despite all this, it is worth noting that infrastructure spending has been increasing for the last two decades, with the biggest rise over the last five years coming directly from African governments.

Additionally, new technologies mean that Africa can effectively leapfrog a generational technology class and take advantage of a more efficient energy mix based on localised needs.

One example of this is the 13MW/26MWh battery storage asset in Bokhol in northern Senegal, which would probably not have been developed if conventional base load generation had been constructed within the last 10 years.

Climate justice is firmly part of the global agenda

At the time of writing, COP27 had just closed and there were clear signals of greater global cooperation.

There was also an acknowledgment that developed economies should be doing more to support the mitigation and adaptation needs of developing countries, possibly even through a new ‘Loss and Damage’ fund.

After some heated debate, climate justice is now firmly acknowledged as part of the global agenda.

Even if we have a further year to debate what mechanisms should be pushed for adoption at COP28.

There were similar tensions around carbon market governance.

This looks at the principles of countries or entities reducing or absorbing emissions and selling them as carbon credits to high emitters.

It is expected to take centre stage at COP28.

This global dialogue and acceptance that we are looking at a global energy and carbon system bodes well for developing African countries.

It is likely that Africa’s energy transition will look very different to that seen in more developed nations.

Mike Theobald is director of Energy Transition at WSP. This is his account of some of the key points made at a roundtable event on the resilience and sustainable infrastructure challenges on the African continent on 26 October.

The Brunel Africa lecture takes place online on 28 November 2022.

Register to watch

  • Mike Theobald, director, energy transition at WSP