Instead of cutting forests and burning dung and charcoal, shouldn’t Africa have cheap electricity?
By Duggan Flanakin
China, India, Vietnam and other nations are using more and more oil, natural gas and coal every year to electrify and modernize their nations, create jobs, and improve their people’s health, living standards and life spans. Why in this day and age are the World Bank and other international institutions demanding widespread use of charcoal for heating and cooking in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA)?
During the recent 2019 “climate week,” the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change touted increased reliance on biomass – which already comprises 60% of European “renewable” energy – as a tool in fighting climate change and stabilizing Earth’s never-stable climate.
(Europe’s “renewable” energy includes England’s Drax Power Plant, which is fueled by wood from millions of trees from thousands of acres of American and Canadian forest habitats. The trees are turned into wood pellets, which are hauled by truck to coastal ports and transported to North Yorkshire on oil-fueled cargo ships. From there the pellets are taken by train to the Drax Power Plant and burned in place of coal, to generate electricity – so that the UK can “meet its renewable fuel targets,” even though the overall process generates more carbon dioxide than coal or gas plants on a total life-cycle basis, and the trees are cut and burned much faster than new ones can grow. This is hardly sustainable.)
The Dogwood Alliance objected to the IPCC report, claiming that biomass (largely charcoal) contributes to deforestation. Dogwood’s arguments reflect the views of Norimitsu Onishi, whose 2016 New York Times article pointed out that burning charcoal not only poses human health concerns, but also constitutes a massive threat to the environment and numerous plant and animal species whose habitats are being destroyed by people using their trees to make charcoal.
The UN Environment Programme predicts that Africa’s demand for charcoal – currently 23 million tons a year – is likely to double or triple by 2050. Africa’s charcoal production doubled in the past two decades and now accounts for more than 60% of the world’s total, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. Rapid urbanization increased demand for charcoal, the preferred way to cook in SSA cities.
Onishi acknowledged that charcoal is cleaner and easier to use than firewood, and cheaper and more readily available in much of Africa than gas or electricity. As a result, 80% of SSA families use charcoal as their primary energy source.
The World Health Organization reports that worldwide over 4.3 million people a year die prematurely from illnesses attributable to household air pollution resulting from burning charcoal and other solid fuels in open fires and leaky stoves. That’s more deaths than from AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis combined.
The WHO also noted that the lack of access to electricity for at least 1.2 billion people around the world exposes families to very high levels of fine particulate matter and other toxic materials in smoke – and to many intestinal diseases from spoiled food and unsafe drinking water. Lack of electricity also results in other health risks, such as burns, injuries and poisonings.
The lack of plentiful, reliable, affordable electricity also restricts opportunities to read and study at night, enjoy access to computers and the internet, engage in small crafts and trades, develop larger businesses and industries, create jobs, build modern homes, hospitals, schools and infrastructure, and take other steps that greatly improve people’s living standards, health and nutrition.
Why, in heaven’s name, more than century after affordable electricity began to transform Western society, is over half of Africa still not connected to any electric grid? Can any American, European, Australian or Canadian imagine life without abundant, reliable, affordable, 24/7/365 electricity?
The World Bank points out that SSA’s household electrification rate averaged a mere 42% in 2016 – with Rwanda at 80% and Guinea-Bissau at an abysmal 30% – leaving hundreds of millions of Africans with no electricity or only very limited, totally unpredictable access to this vital energy source.
ZimbabweSituation.com says three factors hinder demand for electric power in much of Africa. First, many firms and households that are already connected to the grid in SSA face regular blackouts, due to insufficient electricity and poor grid reliability. That means continued reliance on charcoal, forcing connected households and businesses to pay for two energy sources.
Next, where electricity bills take up a large share of household income, access to electricity is very low. Countries with poor grid penetration typically use high tariffs to finance infrastructure to improve their electric grids. But high tariffs translate into high energy bills that deter consumers and make it very hard for to launch and sustain businesses that create jobs and enable people to afford electricity.
Third, the cost and complexity of the connection process further hampers electrification. Where generation capacity is insufficient, utilities may delay new connections until infrastructure investments catch up with consumer demand. The Catch-22 is that these administrative barriers, red tape and connection costs drive down demand, postponing electrification almost forever.
In most places, says Patrick Conners, The Energy Guy, wood competes dollar for dollar with natural gas but pollutes much more and requires far more work: hauling and stacking the wood, stoking and tending the fire, and cleaning out the ashes afterward. A modern furnace gives much more uniform heat without the smoke and draft issues, but even these are unavailable and unaffordable in Africa.
African electricity costs and reliability will only come with modernization and expansion of the electric grid. The late Steven Lyazi, who worked with the Congress of Racial Equality Uganda, acknowledged that the availability of solar energy is good news to millions of Africans who rely on firewood, dung and charcoal for cooking. However, he added, solar and wind are at best stopgap solutions on the way to energy security – which UN, World Bank and other policies all but ensure will never arrive.
“Many people,” said Lyazi, “don’t know that Africa has some big dreams.” Just one – the proposed 466-mile Trans East Africa electric railway – would require much more energy than wind and solar can provide. Much of Africa has great potential for nuclear energy, coal, oil and natural gas, he explained – but powerful (largely European) environmentalists (including the World Bank) have opposed funding such projects.
Lyazi, who died in a bus accident in 2017, urged Africans to use their abundant natural resources. He challenged Africans to defy European environmentalists, who have stymied fossil fuel, hydroelectric and nuclear power projects in Africa. He said Uganda and other SSA countries should build natural gas pipelines to power plants, to generate affordable electricity for millions. Today, African oilfields mostly burn and waste the gas, while exporting the oil is mostly exported, benefitting elites while leaving millions energy-deprived, impoverished and desperate.
Why not also build nuclear and coal power plants and hydroelectric projects? Why not indeed? Why should Africans continue to barely survive at the hands of eco-imperialist, neo-colonialist, environmentally destructive organizations policies that ignore the most basic human rights: the rights to energy, modern health and living standards, and decent lives?
As South African nuclear engineer, energy consultant and activist Kelvin Kemm has noted, no single energy source will work for all of Africa. All have shortcomings in various regions, for a wide variety of reasons – except that small pebble bed modular nuclear reactors could probably be employed anywhere.
But Africa, and individual African countries and regions, should be the ones making those decisions – not outsiders, and not based on disinformation, pressure and bullying from those outsiders. They should not be forced to accept biomess energy imposed on them by global eco-imperialists.
Duggan Flanakin is director of policy research at the Committee For A Constructive Tomorrow. He has a Master’s in public policy from Regent University and has studied environmental regulation for decades.