Smart energy
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Let’s debate whether Africa is ready for a smart energy transition. I’m going to argue that a smart energy transition is already underway and with success stories to back up my statement.

This article first appeared in ESI Africa Issue 3-2020.
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First off, let’s concede that the pre-COVID-19 economic spurt, continuing population growth, and the emergence of a rising middle class (who are ready to become tech-savvy prosumers), have led to greater energy demand.

Moreover, many countries are still facing significant challenges with regards to energy generation and distribution, and in consequence are not meeting electricity access rates and mounting demand from residential, commercial and industrial sectors.

Naturally, the impact of the Coronavirus pandemic must be acknowledged. Since varying degrees of national lockdowns came into effect, it is estimated that global energy demand is projected to fall 6% in 2020. This is seven times the decline after the 2008 global financial crisis, yet sub-Saharan Africa’s electricity needs are growing. A solution lies in energy trading.

The Energy and Economic Growth programme (see page 64-67, The benefits of cross-border renewable energy trading) suggest that the construction of large-scale, cross-border ‘green’ grids can address variability and grid stability issues by helping to balance supply and demand.

These grids can connect areas that have high renewable energy generating capacity with areas of high demand. It’s a notable smart energy solution but more research and evidence will be needed to attain cooperation along with the technical grid codes.

As numerous projects related to expanding the rate of electrification are underway, energy trading will play a significant role in the smooth flow of demand and supply. In Tanzania, Energy 4 Impact (see page 12, Blueprint: Empowering grid-connected areas) ran a successful pilot project to address stimulating the productive use of electricity.

The supported businesses reported an average increase in profit of 183%, an average increase in monthly electricity consumption of 88%, and creating 523 permanent jobs.

This type of programme proves the level of increased power demand that can be stimulated through access to electricity. The spin-off from an increase in jobs and SMME profits will translate into more consumer buying power and stimulate GDPs—a win-win all round.

However, luring me back to reality, independent energy and climate change practitioner and the former MD of Sustainable Energy Africa, Peta Wolpe, points out that to understand how smart energy solutions can increase energy access, we must first understand what is meant by urban energy poverty (see page 34-35, Urban energy poverty needs a smart resolution).

In the South African context, Wolpe is clear that smart meters and smart grid solutions on their own will not address energy poverty and access. A holistic approach that considers a suite of affordable energy options and services both grid-connected and off-grid is essential.

This would include energy-efficient practices and behaviour, efficient and appropriate appliances, solar-home systems, mini-grids, rooftop PV, and a tariff structure that incentivises end-users; and is competitive with traditional non-renewable energy sources.

This brings me to the need for innovation. In conversation with Nicola Lazenby, who leads the Energy Catalyst Programme at Innovate UK, new approaches are needed or the problem of energy poverty would have been solved long ago (see page 62, Why catalysing innovation is needed to power Africa).

Success on this front needs collaboration to tackle the complex problems, which cannot be addressed in silos. The opportunities for all technologies to co-exist are there but to achieve a low-carbon smart transition, politics must take a back seat and let market forces (developers and funders alike) lead with backing from progressive policies and regulation.

Until the next edition.
Nicolette