Africa, Development & Aid, Energy, Environment, Europe, Global Governance, Headlines

ENERGY: New Moves to Bring More Light to Africa

PARIS, Jun 8 2009 (IPS) - Looking at night-time satellite pictures of Africa, most of the continent seems to be suffering a giant power cut, especially when compared with brightly lit Europe or the United States.

But for most Africans, there really is no power to cut – about 77 percent of the continent’s sub-Saharan population lives without access to electricity, according to experts who met here last week to discuss solutions to Africa’s energy problems.

“The average U.S. citizen uses 350 times more electricity than an Ethiopian citizen,” said Claude Mandil, former executive director of the International Energy Agency, whose headquarters hosted the conference.

“These figures give you an idea how wide the gap is,” he told IPS. “All you have to do is look at how many kilowatts of energy each country uses, and then the problem becomes clear.”

The conference titled ‘Access to all forms of energy in Africa: What are the solutions’ highlighted the obstacles to development that the lack of electricity brings. But it also presented individuals and groups trying to alleviate the problem.

These include non-governmental organisations such as one formed by African professionals in France called the African Oil Gas and Renewable Energy Network (AOGREEN) which works to inform African students about job opportunities in the energy sector and to promote the development of sustainable energy.

AOGREEN collaborates closely with the Association for the Development of Energy in Africa (ADEA), another Paris-based organisation that works with companies, governments and experts to seek solutions to the continent’s energy problems. The two groups co-organised the conference.

The situation in Africa is not new, and while the northern and southern areas of the continent remain largely electrified, NGOs and some government officials are concerned that the global economic crisis could make things worse for the sub-Saharan area as international companies cut their investment in developing countries.

“We need a commitment to funding for conditions to improve, especially in the rural areas,” Cedric D’Almeida, president of AOGREEN told IPS.

Nearly 530 million Africans lack access to electricity, according to United Nations data, and that figure could reach 600 million in 20 years. The situation is especially serious in rural areas where as much as 95 percent of the population can be without electricity.

The impact on rural residents is wide-ranging. The use of wood and other biomass to provide energy for cooking and heating consumes time, and can lead to deforestation, pollution and respiratory illnesses in poor communities. Women often face the brunt of these problems as they are the ones who have to go in search of wood and spend time bent over smoking stoves.

In some cities, the electricity situation is worsening, according to reports presented at the conference. Old and badly maintained installations mean that power cuts are frequent and sometimes long-lasting, leading to loss in national revenue.

The situation could be alleviated by tapping into the continent’s “huge potential” for developing renewable energy sources, say experts in the field. Such sources include hydropower, solar and wind power, and geothermal power (in which energy is harvested from heat stored in the earth). Kenya currently gets about 15 percent of its electricity from geothermal power, and other countries could also exploit this source of energy, scientists say.

Christèle Adedjoumon, a Paris-based former oil logistics expert who now heads the Benin Association for Awakening and Development (ABED), believes that solar power and biofuels are the way forward for rural Africa, especially if provided in a sustainable way.

Many African countries receive more than 300 days of sunlight on average, which makes solar energy a viable option, she says. But large-scale investment is needed for these technologies, and that is where international agencies, developed countries and multinational oil companies can help.

Adedjoumon and ABED currently run a pilot project in the village Hon in south-west Benin, providing electricity for six hours a day through the use of solar panels.

Adedjoumon says this has made a big difference to the villagers. They can finally get television, and can use mobile phones whose batteries are now recharged in the village instead of being sent 20 kilometres away.

The NGO has trained women to run the installation so that they “don’t have to abandon their children to seek work elsewhere,” Adedjoumon says.

Sponsored by the United Nations Development Fund and India’s Barefoot College (an NGO formed in 1972 to help solve rural problems), the project’s costing for 20 years is 123,040 euros, including expenses for salaries, repairs and renewing batteries.

“It’s absolutely necessary to have a common vision, so that everyone can feel included,” Adedjoumon says. “The women have to be trained so they can install as well as maintain the system because abandoned solar panels are a problem in many areas. Proper maintenance makes the system sustainable, and that’s a job for African people themselves. But these projects need financing.”

Meanwhile, the European Union is also working through its EU-Africa Energy Partnership to bring electricity to sub-Saharan Africa, says Jean Lamy, energy and climate head at the French Ministry of Foreign and European Affairs.

Europe gets a significant amount of energy from oil refined in African countries, and some governments have agreements by which aid will go towards developing energy sources. But priorities still have to be agreed upon, Lamy said.

“Without energy, there is no development or effective fight against poverty,” he said. “Whether the problem ranges from rural electrification, infrastructure, or lack of energy in the towns, it prevents social and economic development.”

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