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The global campaign to provide vulnerable and marginalised communities with sustainable and affordable energy has gained considerable momentum in the past decade. The Africa-EU Energy Partnership’s target of giving electricity access to 100m more Africans by 2020, set in 2010, was exceeded by mid-decade. The United Nations’ Sustainable Energy for All (SE4All) initiative should achieve its target of pulling 1bn people worldwide out of energy poverty by 2030; some 500m of these people live in sub-Saharan Africa.

The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, established in September 2015, commit the global community to “ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy” by 2030. For all the progress expected towards meeting this target, the end result is likely to remain elusive. Demographics, as much as finance and technology, is a critical variable: SE4All data show nearly 97m more Africans gained access in 2010-14, but the continent’s population increased by more than 110m.

Data for the increase in access to clean fuels and technologies for cooking are alarming: only around 31m more Africans gained access in 2010-14, according to SE4All, while some 850m people remain without access to clean cooking fuels in sub-Saharan Africa, out of 2.3bn worldwide. The average rate of access to clean cooking fuels across Africa in 2014 was a meagre 26%, SE4All data show. This compares unfavourably even with access to electricity, which in the average African country is around 46%.

According to the International Energy Agency (IEA)’s Energy Access Outlook 2017, over 90% of the population of sub-Saharan Africa rely on solid biomass for cooking. A focus on clean cooking is essential to counter the negative impact of ‘traditional’ techniques on health, female productivity, fragile environments and other critical social indicators. But improvements must compete with Africa’s demographics. The figure of 780m Africans who rely on solid biomass for cooking is nearly 50% higher than in 2000, and the IEA forecasts the number of people without access to clean cooking growing to 910m by 2030, reflecting the impact of population growth.

The good news is services are improving across sub-Saharan Africa, in terms of grid connections, volumes of electricity generated and the increased application of affordable renewable energy and distributed technologies. “From 2000 to 2016 nearly all of those who gained access to electricity worldwide did so through new grid connections, mostly with power generation from fossil fuels,” the IEA observes. But over the last five years, renewable energy, off-grid and mini-grid systems have started to gain ground in Africa, where renewable energy has provided 34% of new connections since 2012, and off-grid and mini-grid systems 6% , “and this shift is expected to accelerate”.

Countries that have made strong efforts to increase access include Côte d’Ivoire, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Sudan and Tanzania, the report says. By 2030, renewable energy is expected to power over 60% of new access, in a fast-changing environment where “off-grid and mini-grid systems provide the means for almost half of new access, underpinned by new business models using digital and mobile technologies”.

The spread of more efficient end-user appliances and innovative business models is having an impact, leading the IEA to conclude that “this combination of factors is set to transform the energy access landscape in the years to come, especially in rural areas, where decentralised systems are likely to provide the most cost-effective solutions for a majority of those who gain access”.

The shift towards decentralised systems is especially good news on a continent where the average difference between urban and rural electrification rates is more than 40%. Like mobile telecoms 20 years ago, a boom in solar home systems and other consumer-focused technologies could boost job creation and entrepreneurship, helping to stabilise populations in economies where any number of reforms have so far failed to keep pace with demographic growth. Even so, over 600m Africans could still be deprived of access to electricity come the global initiatives’ target year of 2030.