Africa at night by satellite

The Economist has an article this week in which it points out that power shortages are one of the biggest brakes on development.

SEEN from space, Africa at night is unlit—as dark as all-but empty Siberia. With nearly 1 billion people, Africa accounts for over a sixth of the world’s population, but generates only 4% of global electricity . . . most of the attempts at electrification in the 1970s and the 1980s failed. In some countries, dictators pillaged power stations for parts and fuel. In others, power stations were built but not maintained. Turbines were run at full capacity until they broke, then were abandoned. By some counts, only 17 of Nigeria’s 79 power stations, many dating from this period, are still working; . . . The World Bank reckons that 500m sub-Saharan Africans are without what it calls “modern energy”.

I know the constant lights out in Ghana this summer have been devastating for small business, and for employees in any business that uses electric power, which is most all of them. Rawlings got rural electrification under way. But if there is no power, power lines don’t help a lot. The Economist reports there are a number of plans and projects underway throughout the continent:

Many African governments are looking at alternative sources of energy to make up their projected shortfalls. Hydropower is clean, from the point of view of greenhouse-gas emissions, but most of the easy alternatives, notably coal, are dirty. Donors committed to cutting global carbon emissions are unlikely to favour more dirty coal-fired power stations of the sort that predominate in South Africa, although the government there claims that it wants to clean them up. Some fossil fuels, however, are less damaging than coal. A pipeline planned for west Africa, which will carry gas that is now flared off in oilfields, could stabilise electricity supply in coastal cities.

Few Africans in rural areas have access to electricity. Connecting them to national grids will be slow and expensive. Yet Lilliputian windmills, water mills, solar panels and biomass furnaces could have a big collective impact. The cost of lighting a shack takes 10% of income in the poorest households and the kerosene lamps are highly polluting. In response, the World Bank has rolled out “Lighting Africa”, an ambitious effort to get 250m of the poorest Africans on clean-energy lighting by 2030.

Talk of the mass production of biofuels in Africa is premature, but advances have been made. Some investors are backing jatropha, a plant whose seeds produce an oil for burning in generators. There is also an effort to tap geothermal energy. The Great Rift Valley, from Eritrea to Mozambique, could produce 7,000MW. Kenya hopes to get 20% of its energy from geothermal sources by 2017.

Engineers think they can also use the steady winds in Africa’s mountain ranges for power production. And if the costs of using the sun’s warmth can be reduced to 30% below its present cost, vast solar farms could offer cheap, clean energy for African cities and in doing so boost incomes in rural areas. Egypt, which relies mostly on natural gas, is looking hard at solar power.

The biofuels worry me a bit. If Africa goes into biofuel production, will it be for African power? or for US and European use? Much of what I’ve been reading lately talks about Africa growing biofuel for the US market. And although this article talks about how hydropower is clean, it can still have profound environmental impact, which is not mentioned here. We can see examples of this with the Chinese dams on the Mekong, and the consequent effect on water supply in Southeast Asia.

Small scale local projects can make a huge difference.

I was relieved the article did not mention nuclear power. Some are talking about that, and it would be an unmitigated disaster. No one has figured out what to do with nuclear waste. It is a huge, though mostly silent problem in the US. Europe has been dumping nuclear waste off the coast of Somalia, some of which washed up with the tsunami. And the regulation and management, which is unreliable here in the US, would, depending on which government in which country, be likely to be less dependable, more erratic, and a danger to everyone.

ADDED 8/23 – After studying the map above, it looks like the brightest spots are Cairo, the Niger Delta, and Pretoria. Everything I read about the Niger Delta says there is little to no electricity, and what there is, is frequently off. So what is causing the light? Other things I read say that you can see the fires from space that flare the gas off the oil, and that there are children in the delta that have never known a dark night. Is the light coming out of the Niger Delta from gas flares?