Saturday, July 28, 2007

In Africa The Lights Keep Going Out

Developed nations take bright lights for granted. Flip a switch, instant illumination. But not in Africa. Africa seeks to join the taking of electricity for granted, except - they cannot. Africans all over the continent know what the true price is for electricity - dwindling fresh water, clogging pollution from power sources and a lack of western capital investments for basic infrastructure because of circular tribal fights over resources.

In Nigeria, Angola and some other nations, virtually all businesses and many residents run private generators to supplement faltering public service, saddling economies with added costs and worsening pollution.

"I've been on the 20th floor of an apartment building in Luanda, and there would be generators on all the verandas, with the racket, the fumes," said Anton Eberhard, a former electricity regulator and an expert on power at the University of Cape Town. "And the lift isn't working, because the main power supply is off."

In normal times, South Africa's muscular chain of power plants fills the gaps of its neighbors. But South Africa now could experience up to seven years of its own electricity shortages. Rolling blackouts blanketed parts of the country in January, and sporadic power failures have persisted since.

The gravity of this year's shortage is all the more apparent considering how little electricity sub-Saharan Africa has to begin with. Excluding South Africa, whose economy and power consumption dwarf other nations', the region's remaining 700 million citizens have access to roughly as much electricity as do the 38 million citizens of Poland. (emphasis mine)

Rolling blackouts are big news in America because of their rarity. When they happen media people spout the amount of lost productivity for businesses. In Africa it is a multiplier of disaster because the grids are not robust. Before South Africa could bridge the gap, but they are facing their own power shortages. Nigeria, rich in resources and rife with corruption is unable to keep pace. Ghana is using funds from the World Bank to build its grid for, wait for it...

Several factors account for Ghana’s energy problems, and there is now an urgent need for a long-term visionary approach to sector management. The main objective of the Energy Development and Access project is to support long-term efforts aimed at (i) improving the performance of the power companies, (ii) increasing energy efficiency, (iii) scaling-up energy access to reduce inequity due to urban-rural imbalance, and (iv) enhancing renewable energy generation capacity.

Does all that fancy MBA talk mean everyone in Ghana will have access to the power grid?

Al Gore used a slide in the Oscar-winning film, An Inconvenient Truth that showed western nations awash in lights and electricity. From space, the African continent isn't lit up like a holiday parade. Everyone in a developed nation is just one prolonged blackout away from personally appreciating the every day travails of Africans and Iraqis.

Given the amount of strife in Africa, it behooves all of us with the lights on to learn, quickly. Oil forms the basis of environmental blight and economic boon to Africa. A prime goal is to provide enough energy to improve African Quality of Life in attaining developed status. The struggle and trade offs are outlined in two prodigious books; Untapped: The Scramble for Africa's Oil by the highly readable John Ghazvinian and the painstakingly researched Poisoned Well: The Dirty Politics of African Oil by Nicholas Shaxson. I am looking for African authors on this subject - do you have recommendations?

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