How to bring affordable, sustainable electricity to Africa | Rose M. Mutiso

How to bring affordable, sustainable electricity to Africa | Rose M. Mutiso


So right now, nearly
one billion people globally don’t have access
to electricity in their homes. And in sub-Saharan Africa, more than half of the population
remain in the dark. So you probably all know
this image from NASA. There’s a name for this darkness. It’s called “energy poverty,” and it has massive implications
for economic development and social well-being. One unique aspect of the energy
poverty problem in sub-Saharan Africa — and by the way, in this talk
when I “energy,” I mean “electricity” — one thing that’s unique about it is there isn’t much legacy
infrastructure already in place in many countries of the region. So, for example, according to 2015 data, the total installed electricity capacity
in sub-Saharan Africa is only about 100 gigawatts. That’s similar to that of the UK. So this actually presents
a unique opportunity to build an energy system
in the 21st century almost from scratch. The question is: How do you do that? We could look back to the past
and replicate the ways in which we’ve managed to bring
stable, affordable electricity to a big part of the world’s population. But we all know that that has
some well-known terrible side effects, such as pollution and climate change, in addition to being
costly and inefficient. With Africa’s population set to quadruple
by the end of the century, this is not a theoretical question. Africa needs a lot of energy,
and it needs it fast, because its population is booming
and its economy needs to develop. So for most countries,
the general trajectory of electrification has been as follows. First, large-scale
grid infrastructure is put in place, usually with significant
public investment. That infrastructure then powers
productive centers, such as factories,
agricultural mechanization, commercial enterprises and the like. And this then stimulates economic growth, creating jobs, raising incomes and producing a virtuous cycle that helps more people
afford more appliances, which then creates residential
demand for electricity. But in sub-Saharan Africa,
despite decades of energy projects, we haven’t really seen these benefits. The energy projects have often
been characterized by waste, corruption and inefficiency; our rural electrification
rates are really low, and our urban rates could be better; the reliability of
our electricity is terrible; and we have some of the highest
electricity prices in the whole world. And on top of all of this, we are now facing the impacts of
the growing climate catastrophe head-on. So Africa will need
to find a different path. And, as it turns out,
we are now witnessing some pretty exciting disruption
in the African energy space. This new path is called off-grid solar, and it’s enabled by cheap solar panels, advances in LED and battery technology, and combined with
innovative business models. So these off-grid solar products
typically range from a single light to home system kits
that can charge phones, power a television or run a fan. I want to be clear: off-grid solar is a big deal in Africa. I have worked in the sector for years, and these products are enabling us
to extend basic energy services to some of the world’s poorest, raising their quality of life. This is a very good
and a very important thing. However, off-grid solar will not solve
energy poverty in Africa, and for that matter, neither will a top-down effort
to connect every unserved household to the grid. See, I’m not here to rehash
that played-out “on-versus-off-grid” or “old-versus-new” debate. Instead, I believe that our inability
to grapple with and truly address energy poverty in Africa stems from three main sources. First, we don’t really have
a clear understanding of what energy poverty is,
or how deep it goes. Second, we are avoiding
complex systemic issues and prefer quick fixes. And third, we are misdirecting
concerns about climate change. Combined, these three mistakes are leading
us to impose a Western debate on the future of energy and falling back on paternalistic
attitudes towards Africa. So let me try and unpack
these three questions. First, what exactly is energy poverty? The main energy poverty targeted indicator is enshrined in the UN’s Seventh
Sustainable Development Goal, or SDG 7. It calls for 100 percent
of the world’s population to have access to electricity
by the year 2030. This binary threshold, however, ignores the quality, reliability
or utility of the power, though indicators
are currently being developed that will try and capture these things. However, the question of when
a household is considered “connected” is not quite clear-cut. So, for example, last year
the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared all of the villages
in India electrified, the criteria for electrification being a transformer in every village
plus its public centers and 10 percent — 10 percent —
of its households connected. Meanwhile, the International Energy Agency,
which tracks progress against SDG 7, defines energy access as
50 kilowatt hours per person per year. That’s enough to power
some light bulbs and charge a phone, perhaps run a low-watt TV or fan
for a few hours a day. Now, providing entry-level access
is an important first step, but let’s not romanticize the situation. By any standard, a few lights
and not much else is still living in energy poverty. And what’s more, these energy poverty
indicators and targets cover only residential use. And yet, households account
for just about one quarter of the world’s electricity consumption. That’s because most of our power
is used in industries and for commerce. Which brings me to my main point: countries cannot grow out of poverty
without access to abundant, affordable and reliable electricity
to power these productive centers, or what I call “Energy for Growth.” As you can see from this graph, there’s simply no such thing
as a low-energy, high-income country. It doesn’t exist. And yet, three billion people in the world currently live in countries without
reliable, affordable electricity — not just to power their homes
but also their factories, their office buildings, their data centers and other economic activities. Merely electrifying households
and microenterprises cannot solve this deeper energy poverty. To solve energy poverty, we need to deliver reliable,
affordable electricity at scale, to power economy-wide job creation
and income growth. This need, however, bumps
against an emerging narrative that, faced with climate change, we all need to transition
from large, centralized power systems to small-scale distributed power. The growth of off-grid solar in Africa — and let me repeat,
off-grid solar is a good thing — but that growth fits nicely
into this narrative and has led to those claims that Africa
is leapfrogging the old ways of energy and building its power system
from the ground up, one solar panel at a time. It’s a nice, solicitous narrative,
but also quite naïve. Like many narratives
of technological disruption, often inspired by Silicon Valley, it takes for granted the existing systems
that underpin all of this transformation. You see, when it comes
to innovating and energy, the West is working around the edges
of a system that is tried and tested. And so all the sexy stuff — the rooftop solar, the smart household devices,
the electric vehicles — all of this is built on top of a massive
and absolutely essential grid, which itself exists within
a proven governance framework. Even the most advanced
countries in the world don’t have an example of an energy system
that is all edges and no center at scale. So ultimately, no approach — be it centralized or distributed,
renewable or fossil-based — can succeed in solving energy poverty without finding a way to deliver
reliable, affordable electricity to Africa’s emerging industrial
and commercial sectors. So, it’s not just lights
in every rural home. It’s power for Africa’s cities
that are growing fast and increasingly full
of young, capable people in desperate need of a job. This in turn will require
significant interconnectivity and economies of scale, making a robust and modern grid a crucial piece of any
energy poverty solution. So, our second mistake is falling
for the allure of the quick fix. You see, energy poverty exists within a complex socioeconomic
and political context. And part of the appeal
of new electrification models such as off-grid solar, for example, is they can often bypass the glacial pace
and inefficiency of government. See, with small systems you can skip
the bureaucracies and the utilities and sell directly to customers. But to confront energy poverty, you cannot ignore governments,
you cannot ignore institutions, you cannot ignore the many players
involved in making, moving and using electricity at scale, which is a way to say that when it comes
to providing energy for growth, it’s not just about
innovating the technology, it’s about the slow and hard work
of improving governance, institutions and the broader macroenvironment. OK, so this is all good and nice, you say. But what about climate change? How do we ensure a high-energy
future for everyone while also curbing our emissions? Well, we’ll have to make
some complex tradeoffs, but I believe that
a high-energy future for Africa is not mutually exclusive
to a low-carbon future. And make no mistake: the world cannot expect Africa
to remain in energy poverty because of climate change. (Applause) Actually, the facts show
that the opposite is true. Energy will be essential for Africa
to adapt to climate change and build resilience. You see, rising temperatures will mean
increased demand for space cooling and cold storage. Declining water tables will mean
increased pumped irrigation. And extreme weather and rising sea levels
will require a significant expansion and reinforcement of our infrastructure. These are all energy-intensive activities. So balancing climate change
and Africa’s pressing need to transition to a high-energy future will be tough. But doing so is nonnegotiable;
we will have to find a way. The first step is broadening
the terms of the debate away from this either-or framing. And we also must stop
romanticizing solutions that distract us from the core challenges. And let’s not also forget that Africa
is endowed with vast natural resources, including significant renewable potential. For example, in Kenya, where I’m from, geothermal power accounts
for half of our electricity generation, and with hydro being
the other major source, we are already mainly powered
by renewable energy. We also just brought online
Africa’s largest wind farm and East Africa’s biggest solar facility. (Applause) In addition, new technology means that we can now
run and design our power systems and use energy more efficiently than ever, doing more with less. Energy efficiency
will be an important tool in the fight against climate change. So in closing, I’d just like to say that
Africa is a real place with real people, navigating complex challenges
and major transitions, just like any other region of the world. (Applause) And while each country and each region has its social, economic
and political quirks, the physics of electricity
are the same everywhere. (Laughter) (Applause) And the energy needs of our economies are just as intensive as those
of any other economy. So, the expansion
of household electrification through a mix of
on- and off-grid solutions has had an incredible impact in Africa. But they are nowhere near sufficient
for solving energy poverty. To solve energy poverty, we need generation of electricity
from diverse sources at scale and modern grids to power
a high-energy future, in which Africans can enjoy
modern living standards and well-paying jobs. Africans deserve this, and with one of every four people
in the world projected to be African by the year 2100, the planet needs it. Thank you. (Applause)

44 thoughts on “How to bring affordable, sustainable electricity to Africa | Rose M. Mutiso

  1. Why do blacks reproduce so frequently without an organized, responsible, well thought out plan to feed & clothe their children?

  2. I agree they should develop but with the backdrop of climate change we cannot afford any population to quadruple to a quarter of the world's population. If that happens there is no way to make it sustainable.

  3. Maybe you should go tell the africans, we already have power here. We already pay for enough foreign bullshit, were not paying for africas energy gtfo.

  4. Not to steal the topic… But…Think of Iran where despite humongous oil wealth, people have to die paying to feel their gas tank or even worst, surfing the web!
    BTW what about that larger dark zone in your map, also called Russia?
    So be happy Africa with your purely dark unpolluted night sky.

  5. Personally, I didn't like this TedTalk because the speaker is too "grave", she speaks like the fault is of the citizens of Europe, UK or US and not of UN or whatever big company of electricity.

    And, furthermore, I'd like to add a note at what she said: "[…] Africa needs electricity, and needs it fast.", sweetheart, you know that we are facing a massive problem? A global one? What should we concentrate on: Africa's problems or on the irreversibile consquences of the Climate Change?
    Of course, she did a good job mentioning the issue (no doubt), but speaking with that little and obnoxious note of hatred against the audience is non-sense.

  6. Nearly every station used to record the temperature for official records has been moved at least once over the past century with several having 3 or more distinct moves.

  7. Oh please… another hoax… Africa has everything it needs.. i travel there regulary.. leave those people alone..
    Solve your own sh it first
    From Spain

  8. Jesus christ if the world would share technology these talks on this topic wouldn't even exist. We are a slave race not only to ourselves but no wonder ets dont even give a damn

  9. But we are told that exponential growth is bad for the planet. I’ve paid in more than enough over decades, and get nothing free.
    Africa is better off staying as it is. When you start showing the smallest improvement in living standards. The government will start taxing it off you in hundreds of different ways.
    Africa needs to stay away from the western economic model if they want to keep their way of life.

  10. Quit electing corrupt officials. If Africa made their energy private with only enviormental regulations you would see power available to everyone within a year.

  11. I think its so interesting the comments saying that the African continent should get itself together and figure out. Well, maybe Europe and America should have built itself alone instead of using african slaves too, but we know that didn't happen. It's time to fix the mistakes of the past and help create a just world for everyone.

  12. Every home, business and covered parking rooftop should be solar panel covered making nearly everything we do solar powered, empowering everyone as their own electricity and vehicle solar ''gas'' station companies.

  13. A million tribes who'd rather hack each others babies to death rather than forming well functioning societies together will never be able to get anywhere.
    P.S massive corruption doesn't help either..

  14. The solution for energy, clean water, and sanitation is a functional and productive society not run by corrupt leaders supported by foreign powers who are sucking the countries dry of resources.

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