Green Power Grids: The Importance of Electricity Networks in Africa’s Energy Transition

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Energy access metaphorically rhymes with electrification. Yet, in Sub-Saharan Africa, we assess low rates of both of them: a gloomy picture, especially considering that electricity access is a milestone and a precondition for income, education, productivity, and human development in general. We can sustainably generate all the MWHs we want but, without smart, reliable and efficient grid networks, they wouldn’t benefit the almost 600 million of Africans with no energy access. This is why, today more than ever, it is necessary to include the hitherto too neglected theme of networks when it comes to Africa.

Population in Africa is growing quickly, with unprecedented rates of urbanisation: by 2050, the urban population of the continent is expected to almost triple and such a sharp increase will necessarily be matched by a consistent energy demand. Electricity grids – whether national, mini, or micro – are an irreplaceable ingredient for energy access. Between now and 2040, on-grid electricity supply will dominate in urban, peri-urban and rural areas close to transmission lines. Nonetheless, despite their crucial role, transmission and distribution networks in Africa have received little attention so far and their development has been hampered by decades of insufficient investments, scarce institutional attention and outdated business models. In addition, since urban areas tend to be close to the grid and urban electricity access is consistently higher, there is a misconception that electrification is problematic mainly in rural areas. Studies show that over 110 million Africans live in proximity of a grid, but can’t benefit from access to it.

The very existence of electricity networks isn’t automatically matched by an efficient and safe electricity provision: existing electrical grids often suffer from age, lack of maintenance and low level of investments. Power cuts are frequent and widespread: South Africa is a textbook instance as, despite being the most advanced economy in the region, has been carrying out rotational power cuts for many years, (up to 530 yearly hours of load shedding). Power losses are another plague, reaching up to 16% of electricity lost every year. They both result in significant economic damages, heavily afflicting private firms and costing countries up to 2% of their annual GDP. Finally, public utilities and governmental agencies aren’t endowed with enough resources to step in, financing the development of smart, efficient and reliable grids.

Extending, upgrading, reinforcing and digitalising energy networks is crucial to ensuring a smooth energy transformation. Africa in particular is in a unique position to create a modern and sustainable electricity system from early on, avoiding decades of high emissions from the use of fossil fuels. But extending and improving grids implies large investments. Private investments have been concentrated in the generation segment so far, while investments in electricity networks have remained primarily public, as these are often subject to national monopolies and strict regulation. RES4Africa wants to contribute in changing this situation launching Grids4Africa, a new strategic programme dedicated to smoothing out the bottlenecks in electricity networks.

The road ahead is becoming clearer at every step: based on manifold evidences, private participation should take the lion’s share, ensuring better performances in terms of distribution losses, quality of service and labour productivity. Another milestone consists in ground-breaking regulatory frameworks, safeguarding fair end-user-prices and providing incentives to the private development of grids. Last but not least, a wisely-mixed approach to energy is required, consisting in a well-planned integration of decentralised renewable energy solutions, pivotal in providing energy to the most isolated areas, with electricity networks adequately covering other anthropized zones.

Energy is the life-blood of a full and sustainable development and grids can be easly defined as the veins. Building a greener and brighter future for Africa calls for an unprecedented mobilisation in the present, characterised by a wide-scoped, holistic approach to sustainable energy. Let’s embark on it together, the stakes couldn’t be any higher.

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Roberto Vigotti

Roberto Vigotti

Roberto Vigotti is the Secretary General of RES4Africa Foundation, which gathers more than 30 stakeholders to accelerate the renewable energy transformation in Africa, with Africa and for Africa. In his 30+ year-long career he has covered various positions at Enel, University of Pisa, IEA and IRENA. When it was still considered an unlikely option, he was already convinced that deploying renewable energy in Africa would result in a positive socioeconomic impact for its population. In 2012, he therefore embarked on the RES4Africa adventure, to support a wider participation of private players in delivering investments in Africa. He also coordinates renewAfrica, an industry-backed Initiative that advocates the creation of a European comprehensive Programme for RE investments in Africa, to be promoted and owned by EU institutions

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