Tackling energy poverty in sub-saharan Africa: Introduction

An attempt is being made here to draw the attention of policy makers, energy-stakeholders, academia, news-media and the general public primarily in Ghana, and by extension to Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA), about abject energy poverty, and how this condition could be alleviated.

Let’s make it clear from the onset that in our discussions pertaining to energy poverty in SSA, South Africa that accounts for about 50% of electricity consumed in Africa is not among the SSA countries.

It must be noted also that the substantial portion of the other 50% of the meager amount of electricity in Africa is consumed by the five northern African countries, namely Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Morocco and Tunisia. Hence 46 countries in the SSA, including Nigeria, the most populous country in Africa, consume less than several small countries in Europe.

It is worth noting that due to financial constraints in SSA, new power plants are built with insufficient generating capacities, making the tariffs of the generated electricity too high for the majority of people with low purchasing power. Hence many Governments are ethically bound to subsidize the electricity consumption of the poor. So it is paramount to make tariffs as low as possible, and that depends on (1) the choice of the primary energy source for power generation, and (2) by economies of scale, — the larger the installed capacity, the lower will be the tariff.

Obviously, to build large power stations with installed capacities exceeding 2000 MWe may not be technically feasible for several individual countries in the West African sub-region, but may be appropriate to serve say 3-4 countries.

This comes somehow close to the stance of Ghana’s successive Presidents to make Ghana a hub of power supply in our sub-region. Ghana started to export electricity to its neighbors long ago, and currently has transmission line connections with La Cote d’Ivoire to the west, Togo and Benin to the east, as well as Burkina Faso to the north of Ghana. The rate of power export has however dwindled with Ghana even importing power sometimes from La Cote d’Ivoire with associated trips in the transmission lines.

It is also important to add that, great is the wish of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) to have reliable and affordable power supply to improve quality of life in the sub-region from abject poverty. In fact the 14 countries in ECOWAS have had since the year 2000 the West Africa Power Pool (WAPP) program to boost power supply in this region.

So far only seven countries, namely Ghana, La Cote d’Ivoire, Togo, Benin, Burkina Faso, Nigeria and Niger are currently inter-connected, with Ghana, La Cote d’Ivoire and Nigeria serving as the hubs of power supply. It is quite certain that, whenever a couple of sufficiently large generating capacities are added in our sub-region, other countries; – Mali, Liberia, Guinea, Sierra Leone, Senegal and Gambia could also be inter-connected.

In this global village, energy is associated with many-sided issue, and this is also evident in our quest for suitable energy to accelerate our economic growth. We should recall that, prior to the epic 21st Convention of Parties (COP-21) for the Universal Paris Agreement in 2015, all countries pledged to curb their carbon emissions meaningfully. Since the pledged commitments, known in the agreement as the Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) were not adequate enough, all the countries have been asked to pursue efforts to cut deeper and faster their carbon emissions so that by 2050 the increase in global warming would be less than 1.5°C above the pre-industrial levels. Furthermore, they are expected to submit every five years, updated INDCs which should be more vigorous than the preceding ones.

The rich countries have enormously contributed to environmental pollution and climate change from the profuse use of fossil fuels, and are still the leading polluters. It can be deduced from the records of carbon emissions per capita that, energy consumed per capita in the west, is consumed in SSA by 20-30 people just for their basic subsistence needs.

Yet, the rich nations steadfastly oppose any differentiated responsibility in the Paris Agreement. Let’s note also that in 2015 or so, China said its use of fossil fuel would peak in 16 years, giving China an ample time to develop its quality of life closer to that in the west. India, another country fast growing economy, has also made a similar statement. Against this background, we would underline in Issue 1, the urgency of the energy poverty in SSA, which can be perceived, perhaps, by how far Ghana has been left behind in electricity consumption by her close competitors in the 1960s.

In Issue 2, we shall show that the Kyoto Protocol, which was replaced by the Paris Agreement, was human-centered as the first and second UN sponsored environmental summits in 1972 and 1992 in Stockholm, Sweden and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil respectively. We shall discuss also; (1) the United Nation Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) which organizes annually climate change meetings, known as the Convention of the Parties (COP), and (2) the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The IPCC has three working groups respectively responsible for (1) the scientific aspect, (2) the consequences, and (3) mitigation options for climate change.

The IPCC has developed five Assessment Reports. The Third Assessment for the third group was incidentally held in Accra in 2001. Whereas the report said among other things that intermittent Wind Power (WP) and Solar Power (SP) could not be used for a stand-alone power source, Nuclear Power (NP) was described as a mature technology that could effectively replace coal-fired plants. But the NP, the most effective mitigation option for global warming is hardly mentioned at climate change meetings. The 7th goal of the Sustainable Development Goals is also silent on NP. It will be shown in our discussions later that, that is wrong.

In Issue 3, we shall discuss that the choice of a primary energy source for a new power is greatly influenced by variables, such as (1) capital or investment cost, (2) material or/and land requirements, (3) externalities or external costs, dealing with environmental issues, (4) energy security, and (5) capacity factor (CF), which varies from 90 to 15 or 10%, depending on the choice of the primary energy source. We shall also discuss the current status of the primary energy sources in three distinctive categories, – renewables, fossil fuels, and nuclear energy with the expectation of zero carbon emissions, not only in the energy sector, but also in industrial, domestic, and transport sectors, by 2050.

It will be argued in Issue 4 that the merits of NP are obscured by people’s misconception of nuclear energy. And yet, no effort is made to disseminate to the general public the results of many studies which show that NP is safe and clean. It needs to be said also that the proponents for WP and SP tend to over-glorify WP and SP when they, unknowingly or willfully fail to mention their limitations. Due to their intermittency, WP and SP are not dispatch-able, or simply put, not reliable for the grid. If we can take as a litmus test Germany’s vow in 2011 to replace NP with WP and SP, then we can immediately see the results of such decisions which include (1) skyrocketing tariffs mainly for domestic consumers, and (2) often unstable power systems which affect also Germany’s neighboring countries.

Issue 5 will be on the Deep De-carbonization Pathway Project (DDPP), undertaken by 16 leading countries: Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Russia, South Africa, South Korea, the UK, and the USA. The publishers of the DDPP were Teresa Ribera of IDDRI and Jeffrey Sachs of SDSN, who was Energy and Ecology Advisor to the former UN secretaries Messrs Ban Ki-Moon and Kofi Anann. Two DDPP reports were issued before the COP-21 meeting in Paris in 2015. It must be stated that NP will not be part of energy-mix by 2050 in Germany and in Italy, where political referenda have barred the use of NP in Italy. But it is interesting to note that, Italy says in her report that, the unavailability of NP is its top challenge, which makes things more costly.

In Issue 6 and the subsequent chapters, we shall discuss several aspects of NP to allay many peoples’ concerns about NP. Let’s underscore first that NP is safe and clean. Note that France, and the entire EU have used NP to produce substantial amount of clean and affordable electricity yearly for decades without any fatalities or serious injuries. On the other hand, there have been serious injuries and fatalities from other energy sources, including WP and SP.

Let’s note that nobody died from the Fukushima nuclear accident in 2011, despite the scaremongers’ apocalyptic predictions of heavy casualties. It can be found from www.caithnesswindfarms.co.uk/AccidentStatistics.htm, that there were 15 fatal accidents in 2011 associated with WP. It can be found on this website that the number of fatal accidents associated with WP from 2011 to end of May, 2017 is 55, arguably the number of fatalities could be more than 55.

Nuclear reactors are robustly built with several in-depth measures and multiple barriers to make them as safe as possible. That is technically feasible due to the smallness of nuclear fuel, and that can be deduced from Albert Einstein’s famous equation E=mc2, where ‘m’ stands for the mass of fuel, while ‘c’ is the speed of light which is about 300,000,000 meter per second, a very huge figure. Hence a small amount of nuclear fuel is turned into a tremendous amount of energy.

To appreciate that in practical terms, let us compare the fuel requirements for a coal power plant and a reactor of the same wattage of 1000 MWe. The coal plant needs daily 8000 – 9000 tons of coal, while the reactor requires about 30 tons of nuclear fuel once every 18 months to replace about one-third of the core fuel. Nuclear fuel that has been used in the core for over four years and declared as used or spent fuel still contains about 95% of original fuel.

Ghana’s nuclear power programme development presents a good opportunity to override Ghana’s power sector challenges in the medium to long term whiles meeting Ghana’s intended nationally determined contribution.

By: Dr. Isaac Newton Acquah

The author is a former Scientific Staff, GAEC & a former Safeguard Inspector, IAEA.