The keys to meeting Africa’s growing urban energy needs

(Corrie Wingate Photography/SolarAid)

The energy challenges faced by Africa’s cities are enormous.

Kinshasa, the capital city of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, provides electricity to only about a third of residents. In Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and Matola, Mozambique, power lines fail to reach roughly half the population. Even more developed cities, such as Accra, Lagos and Johannesburg, have sizeable slums that lack this essential service taken for granted elsewhere.

That’s the reality check in a recent report from the European Union Energy Initiative Partnership Dialogue Facility.

But the report — “Future Energy Scenarios for African Cities” — sees opportunities amid the seemingly insurmountable obstacles. The report offers a roadmap for municipalities to promote sustainable energy options that can scale-up as populations rise.

Overall, the urban electrification rate across the African continent is 68 percent; in the sub-Saharan region, the rate drops to 59 percent. Yet energy demand is poised to skyrocket. Mass migration into cities of sub-Saharan Africa is projected to add another 800 million urban residents by 2050, the report says.

Governance and financing

Among the main takeaways is that collaborative governance is the most effective strategy to increase energy output. “The key enabler for change,” the report says, “is the cooperation between municipalities and the national government.”

The approach is important for two reasons. Centralized national governments often fail to prioritize the needs of local communities. Yet without national support, municipalities may be unable to update some regulations on their own.

City leaders also are urged to become savvy about financing options that can include municipal energy funds and bonds. Other mechanisms include the Green Climate Fund, a global initiative that aims to help developing countries wean themselves from fossil fuels.

[See: As the Green Climate Fund meets, will it ensure climate finance reaches the local level?]

The authors also recommend:

  • Inclusive planning: The needs of informal settlements that lack basic services must be part of any energy solution. Partnerships with civic and business leaders from these communities would ensure that slum dwellers have a voice in the process.
  • Robust energy markets: Allowing cities and sub-national governments to generate and distribute energy makes it easier for municipalities to scale-up service. The approach means more opportunities for entrepreneurs and community groups to enter the market.
  • Holistic visions: Planning that integrates the energy, water, housing, climate and transport sectors ensures that new policies are comprehensive and seamless.
  • Broader goals: Aligning energy needs with development targets is important because energy infrastructure enables new urban projects.

Population growth is not the only variable placing a strain on Africa’s energy network. Climate change and economic expansion also are factors, the report says.

As urbanites ascend the economic ladder, they will acquire homes, cars and appliances that will stretch already limited energy resources.

Meanwhile, climate change is expected to take a greater toll on sub-Saharan Africa in the form of floods, drought and searing heatwaves. Higher temperatures will intensify the “heat island effect” that leaves urban environments warmer than rural districts.

[See: Need quick buy-in on climate action? Think urban heat islands]

“Water and food production are likely to become more energy intensive as agricultural areas become more arid,” the report warns. All of these patterns could boost energy usage and disrupt supply chains.

Four scenarios

The authors detail four possible outcomes for African cities. Two are nimble and flexible enough to accommodate innovations, while the others would perpetuate flawed regulatory models:

  • Centralized control: Weak national governments with limited skills, finances and vision may “lock-in” policies that do not meet local needs or address long-term energy and climate objectives.
  • Tepid enforcement: Local governments make commitments to ambitious climate goals but fail on the follow-through, in part because of implementation challenges in fast-growing informal areas. 
  • Growth-driven action: Strong local governance that tailors development and energy needs to match population growth creates opportunities to introduce and expand renewable fuels.
  • Technology focus: Cities that nurture and incentivize innovation can attract investment in new technologies that cost less in the long run and improve the environment.

The EU Energy Initiative is blunt about the roadblocks ahead. Writing in the report’s foreward, Torbjörn Pettersson, department director at the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida) notes that the situation is dire now. African cities already function at “less than 30 percent of the capacity needed to service their citizens,” he writes.

In other words, without drastic action, the continent’s energy deficiencies could become much worse. By 2040, energy consumption in sub-Saharan Africa could be more than 70 percent higher than in 2012, the authors state, citing statistics from the International Energy Agency.

The European Union Energy Initiative Partnership Dialogue Facility was founded in 2004 by the European Commission and several European Union states. Its mission is to assist with energy-related implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals, a global framework that aims to combat hunger and poverty and includes a goal specifically related to building cities that are “inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable”.

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David Hatch is a correspondent for Citiscope.  Full bio

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