The Energy Revolution in Africa: Don’t take it for granted!

It is difficult to deny the many benefits that come with a green energy revolution. But rationality alone won’t drive this revolution. As part of this month’s series on the climate work of FES and its partners, we take a glimpse into the energy situation of Sub-Saharan Africa.

Fifty billion USD – that’s the value of the deal between Russia’s state-owned nuclear corporation Rosatom and South Africa. In 2015, both governments signed an agreement to build eight to 10 new reactors to provide electricity to Africa’s economic powerhouse. These numbers are surprising for two reasons. Firstly, because Sub-Saharan Africa has suffered for decades from a shortage in investments in the energy sector. High economic and population growth were not matched by an up-scaling of the energy infrastructure. The result: an energy crisis worsening every year, which has hit most recently Africa’s only industrialized economy: South Africa.

Secondly, this same deal indicates the resilience of the old fossil-fuel age that countries committed to leave behind by signing the 2015 Paris Agreement on Climate Change. While it was true for a long time that the renewable alternatives to oil, gas, nuclear, and coal were very expensive, especially for developing countries, this has changed over the last few years. Wind, water, and sun have now reached price competitiveness. The alleged dilemma for developing countries – development or climate protection, getting rich by polluting or staying green and poor – is thus about to be resolved. In contrast to the old industrial West and Asia’s newly emerging powers, Africa could indeed realize its own economic take-off in a green and sustainable manner.

Nobody doubts that the potential for green electrification is enormous. The continent harbours huge capacities. With solar alone, Africa could produce 9 terawatts – twice the amount of energy consumed by the United States. These are massive numbers compared to the current solar infrastructure of about 100 gigawatts. This corresponds to only half of the installed capacity in Germany, a country of roughly 80 million compared to the 1 billion that live in Sub-Saharan Africa. Today, there are still 620 million Africans with no access at all to electric energy – a sad record among all continents.

But if the potential is so gigantic, and economic and demographic needs as pressing as they are, why does the energy revolution still lag behind expectations? One of the crucial factors explaining this reality is the political economy of the energy sector in Africa. All too often, political and economic elites – inseparably connected through a network of economic interdependencies – lack the incentive to end the fossil fuel age. While polluters certainly are extremely costly, both from an ecological and economic standpoint, they still represent lucrative deals for entrenched interests. This concerns especially the energy monopolies, which – despite superficial privatization – are still very much alive all over the continent, and are more often than not abused as "cash cows" by dollar-hungry state-backed elites.

Coal, gas, but even more so the growing business of diesel-powered generators in many countries present a great deal of opportunities for insiders to make easy dollars. An opaque system of contracts, deals, subsidies and profit guarantees makes it difficult for any outsider to figure out where exactly corruption happens. The sums needed to uphold such systems are enormous. In Madagascar, for example, one of the poorest in Africa with 92% of its people living below the poverty threshold, almost 20% of the annual budget is needed to subsidize a failing energy system. And this is a system to which less than 15% of the population have access, leaving the great majority without power.

Besides nuclear, hydro and gas present similar opportunities. The bigger the deal, the bigger the opportunity to make cash. Opposed to this, most renewables seem unspectacular. They are often deployed in much smaller units, and thus command lesser overall investment sums. This makes them even more attractive to the African context, where grid infrastructure is almost nonexistent outside of bigger urban agglomerations. As with the mobile phone revolution that enabled Africa to bypass the need for landlines, off-grid technology could play a decisive role to power rural areas.

From a political economy perspective, this smaller-unit and off-grid deployability makes renewables rather more suspicious. While paying lip service to the decentralization of the political structure it is an open secret that governments do not like to share power. A decentralized energy infrastructure would mean to forego the possibility to shut out whole regions in case of political conflicts. A possible empowerment of centrifugal tendencies is certainly not popular in most African capitals.

The heavy price fluctuations on international markets present a further opportunity to make easy cash through the import of oil, gas and uranium. While renewables, which need no outside inputs, make these energy-import dependent countries potentially more independent, they would also put an end to these dubious deals.

It is difficult to deny the many benefits that come with a green energy revolution. Efficiency, ecology, development, and greater independence are the most obvious ones. But rationality alone won’t drive this revolution. Neither markets nor governments can be left to further this revolution unassisted, even though that’s often what the glossy brochures produced by investors and international organizations make us believe. The people themselves, that is, civil society, unions, and political coalitions, have to become involved to take on the powerful political economy networks that still obstruct Africa’s green energy take-off.

The FES project on social-ecological transformation in Africa does exactly that. Three offices on the continent – South Africa, Zimbabwe, and the regional Trade Union Competence Centre – are involved in the difficult task of building reliable alliances around the necessity to go green. In South Africa, our office coordinates closely with unions and civil society advocacy groups to bring forward an energy democracy that could break the dominance of the all too notorious and extremely influential energy-minerals complex. The goal is to combine the ecological imperative of an energy transformation in the coal-dependent South Africa with the need to rebuild a fairer and socially just economy that offers opportunities for all citizens. The energy question has to be politicized in a way to move it from experts’ fora to the realm of democratic debate.

The challenges are not less in Zimbabwe, a country in which governance is most often autocratic. Here the focus is especially on young political and civil society activists to sensitize a much larger part of the population about the importance of the energy question. Even in a difficult political context, advocacy and pressure can influence governments to produce sensible changes.

As with every topic, FES puts a great emphasis, when dealing with energy, on the crucial role of the organized labour movement. Unions can be of utmost importance to further Africa’s energy revolution. Not least because, while still confronting many challenges, they often represent the most organized parts of a potential large progressive coalition. The Southern African Energy Network (SAEN) by energy unions in the Southern African region is an example of a structure established to directly influence political decisions on the SADC level.

Accompanying a movement in the making is certainly not an easy task. But it’s worthwhile if undertaken in a smart way. Without the engagement of thousands of ordinary citizens, the German Energiewende would not have happened. Its success is a timeless proof of the power that people can have in shaping economic decisions.

Based in Madagascar, Marcus Schneider heads the FES Office from Antananarivo and coordinates the climate work of FES for the African continent.

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