Is there energy for all?

Published: 05-NOV-04

Africa is facing a massive energy crisis – but it’s not the one you think.

While power utilities fret about how to meet the needs of the continent’s burgeoning industries, the real disaster is unfolding in sprawling shantytowns on the fringes of the continent’s big cities, where the energy crisis faced by the urban poor threatens to overshadow any gains being made by developing countries.

Household energy use in urban areas is a far more complex issue than in rural areas. Booming urban growth means increasing demand for energy to meet consumption needs – but because of limited access to alternative fuels, most of these needs are still being met by wood fuels, to the extent that urban wood-fuel consumption will probably surpass that of rural areas in the next decade.

The economic and social consequences of wood fuel use in the urban energy balance are often overlooked. Wood fuel is expensive, causes horrendous air pollution and is accelerating the degradation of woody vegetation at an alarming rate.

In Sudan, more than 30 000 km2 of woodland is cleared each year for wood fuel. In Burkina Faso, the land surrounding Ouagadougou has been completely cleared of woody vegetation for 50km in all directions. The area of cleared land around Khartoum already stands at a staggering 400km radius, and is expected to reach 600km by 2005.

The result? Bulky, low-value wood fuels are transported over hundreds of kilometres to urban markets. And depleting the vegetation has all manner of knock-on effects, not least of which is a vicious cycle of soil erosion.

The answer is not to plant more forests. Afforestation programmes can certainly ease pressure on natural forests, protect the environment and satisfy some fuelwood needs of local communities, but it’s a short-term and limited response to the broader energy crisis, especially in urban areas which aren’t exactly overfl owing with space for plantations.

What is needed is a new approach by African energy utilities. Trying to modify current energy consumption patterns is all very well, and energysaving devices, including improved charcoal stoves, can save up to 50% of wood fuel demand.

But that doesn’t really get to the root of current energy policies, which are generally geared towards driving economic growth for the elite while ignoring the needs of the poor. What is really needed are alternative energy strategies, for the short and long-term, for both rich and poor.

At the moment, the elites and big business want big houses with modern conveniences and unlimited power for their industries. Most of Africa’s growth in energy demand is from industry, transportation and a modern sector to supply the elite with the goods and services of industrialised society.

Even relatively developed countries like South Africa are finding that a rapid influx of power-intensive industries can see demand rapidly exceeding supply. Power plants take longer to build than industrial plants, creating a problem of energy planning.

As for the urban poor … well, they just want something to cook their supper on. And the longer their needs are ignored, the worse the crisis becomes. Most utilities will cite economic and fi nancial constraints as the major causes of inadequate infrastructure development for the poor. Fact is, it should be possible to supply the basic energy needs of people living in developing countries if modern, effi cient methods and technologies are used to convert and use primary energy.

In terms of energy substitutes, Africa has an enormous potential which only needs to be explored and exploited. Many sub-Saharan African countries have great potential for the development of hydropower. But despite this, electricity represents only a fraction of total energy consumption in the region.

The technologies also exist for generating electricity based on New and Renewable Sources of Energy (NRSE) apart from hydropower generation, like solar photovoltaic systems, wind generators, and gasifiers.

What’s the answer? In the World Commission on Environment and Development’s “Our Common Future”, published in 1987, Brooks wrote: “We cannot conceive of development without changes in the extent or nature of energy flows of Africa. And because energy is so fundamental, every one of those change flows has environmental implications. The implications of this are profound. It means that there is no such thing as a simple energy choice.

They are all complex. And they will all involve trade-offs. However, some of the choices and some of the trade-offs appear to be unequivocally better than others, in the sense that they offer more development and less environmental damage.”

Right now, we need some serious trade-offs if we are to realistically change the lot of Africa’s tens of millions of urban poor, and avert the accompanying social and environmental disaster.

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