In an era of a raging debate on limiting the use of fossil fuels in favour of renewables, the United Kingdom (UK) government is forging ahead with its support for providing power to the continent.
The move would be welcomed among African political leaders who have long argued that such restrictions were holding back their countries’ development.
Over 620 million people are without access to electricity in sub-Saharan Africa and some 730 million people in the region rely on dangerous, inefficient forms of cooking, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA).
The IEA also noted that in sub-Saharan Africa, the average electricity consumption per capita is not enough to power a single 50-watt light bulb continuously.
During a recent session in the UK Parliament, the Department for International Development (DFID) responded to MPs’ queries about the steps the Department was taking to improve energy supply in sub-Saharan Africa.
“Access to energy is a prerequisite driver of economic growth and development,” the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development, James Wharton, told the House.
“When able to secure it, the world’s poorest people can pay up to 80 times what we pay.
“That is why the UK and this Department are playing a key role in providing both on and off-grid energy access, such as through the Energy Africa campaign, which will help to secure energy supplies for over 4.5 million of the world’s poorest people,” Mr Wharton added.
He pointed out that 1,000 MW can support 800,000 jobs in Africa, referring to a project – in which the UK’s Commonwealth Development Corporation (CDC) had a majority stake – to provide 5,000 MW on the continent.
“This is the scale of the difference we can make when and where we get this right and that is why we are doing it,” Mr Wharton said.
Of late, there has been criticism of the use of fossil fuels to provide electricity, as outgoing US President Barack Obama decided in 2013 that his administration would no longer back the use of coal abroad for electricity generation unless there were carbon emission controls.
During the debate on the Commonwealth Development Corporation Bill in the UK Parliament last month, the Minister of State for International Development, Rory Stewart, said of that problematic issue: “I do not think it would be responsible for economic development in Africa to put us in a position where we cannot invest at all in any conventional energy source.
“As I have mentioned before, China has been building about 8GW of power in a two-month period, with Africa delivering 6GW of power over a decade,” Mr Stewart said.
“It would be a great pity if the only investments we could make in energy in Africa were in renewables.
“This would be unacceptable in a continent that has struggled to build 6,000MW of generating capacity over a decade,” Mr Steward added.
It also comes after the UK renewed commitment to new technology, such as Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS), to support developing countries.
The UK Energy Minister, Jesse Norman, said recently: “In 2012 the government committed £60 million from its International Climate Fund to support the development of CCS technology in emerging economies.
“This international CCS Capacity Building Programme is to work with, and in, emerging economies to develop the technical and institutional knowledge necessary to enable the deployment of CCS technology.”
This is welcome news for African counties such as Ghana that want to use their massive coal reserves to power the continent.
Africa has 35 billion tons of recoverable coal reserves and at the current rate of consumption, would last for 122 years, according to the IEA.
For the incoming government of President Nana Akufo-Addo, the task of countering constant power failure in Ghana would be a major challenge. As currently, about seven million Ghanaians, about 28 per cent of the population – did not have access to electricity.
This covers about eight per cent in urban areas and 50 per cent among the rural communities.
Many African countries are arguing against restrictions on using coal to power their development.
For example the Nigerian Finance Minister Kemi Adeosun told a recent joint meeting of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank: “We in Nigeria have coal but we have a power problem, yet we’ve been blocked because it is not green.
“There is some hypocrisy because we have the entire Western industrialisation built on coal energy.
“They are saying: ‘You have to use solar and wind’, which are the most expensive,” she added.
Experts have pointed out that renewables such as solar cannot power industrial development in Africa because they are unreliable.
Mr Wharton told the UK Parliament that in order for Africa to prosper, it would need “load-based electricity to complement the intermittent energy generation such as solar”.