No one can doubt the causal relationship between energy and economic growth. What we need to do is decide on how we provide energy to enable this. We need to realise that the key energy dimensions, accessibility, affordability, reliability and sustainability cannot be considered mutually exclusive – they are intrinsically linked and can be achieved simultaneously to enable economic growth and prosperity.
Novel thinking upon which we can base future energy systems hypothesises that reliable, sustainable and affordable energy for all will be dominated by renewables based electricity as the primary energy carrier. This will also integrate previously decoupled energy demand for electricity, cooling, heating and mobility.
I will briefly attempt to outline how the four key dimensions of energy need to be achieved simultaneously in Africa to ensure this economic growth and prosperity.
Energy dimensions in South Africa
Energy accessibility is a clear key starting point for Africa with more than 630 million of the 1.1 billion people in Sub-Saharan Africa not having access to electricity. However, even with access, if energy is not reliable, the costs to an economy are massive and orders of magnitude higher than the costs of the power itself.
Pertinent examples of unreliable energy supply and impacts on the economy in recent years include two of the biggest economies in Africa – Nigeria where gas network infrastructure is continuously vandalised and South Africa where coal fleet performance dropped significantly in 2014-2015 resulting in rotational load shedding.
Sustainability deals with the provision of modern systems, which are future proof and viable in the long term for individuals, businesses and governments with strong emphasis typically placed on renewable energy and energy efficiency.
Access, reliability and sustainability all have direct impacts on the affordability of the energy system. The simultaneous balancing of these dimensions is critical in Africa as absolute poverty levels are the highest in the world. Energy solutions that do not deal with all of these dimensions simultaneously, considering the particular context of each country, will not result in economic growth and instead will likely push absolute poverty higher.
The good news in recent years is that these dimensions can all be sufficiently dealt with via the use of renewable energy based electricity supply options. Arguments surrounding the expensive and intermittent nature of renewable energy (particularly solar photovoltaic (PV) and wind technologies) are quickly becoming invalid as various energy sector stakeholders find novel, improved and cheaper solutions every year.
An example that addresses the apparent expensive nature of renewable energy technologies is in South Africa where recent renewable energy auctions have resulted in solar PV and wind becoming the cheapest new build electricity supply technologies in the country.
This can be reproduced in any other African country (and should be) as it inherently addresses affordability and sustainability simultaneously.
The intermittency argument is being dealt with in a number of ways globally including increased regional interconnections of transmission networks, novel packaged off-grid solutions, reduced storage costs (of various forms), improved forecasting capabilities and better understanding system flexibility requirements (on the supply and demand side).
Access to sustainable, reliable and affordable energy for all is possible. It will enable the economic and personal growth of Africa and all Africans. It is possible… we can do it… and we will do it.
Jarrad Gregory Wright is an MScEng(Elec) qualified electrical engineer and registered PrEng with ECSA. He is a member of the SAIEE, CIGRE and IEEE. He has extensive power sector experience in 11 African countries in generation, transmission and distribution of electrical power. More recently, as a Regional Manager for Energy Exemplar (Africa), his main strategic project was the establishment and expansion of the specialised software company into a respected energy consulting firm and class leading simulation tool of choice for energy market operations/planning in Africa.
At the end of 2015 Jarrad took the opportunity to join the newly established CSIR Energy Center as a Principal Engineer. His passion involving the intersection of technical and economics aspects of power systems has motivated him to pursue his Ph.D. at WITS University.