Does Africa need fossil energy to end energy poverty?

Harald Schützeichel

© zbynek-burival on unsplash

There are currently louder calls from African heads of state that fossil energy resources cannot be dispensed with in the fight against energy poverty. Rich countries are accused of a certain hypocrisy: Having built their own wealth on cheap energy from coal and oil, they would try to deny other countries the same benefits.

Just recently, Uganda’s President Yoweri K. Museveni expressed this view in a guest column for the Wall Street Journal. Yet his comment that renewable energies are “unreliable and expensive”, while fossil energies are cheap and reliable, sounds strange in view of the unreliability and cost intensity of the fossil-based energy supply in Uganda.

However, not only in Uganda, but throughout Africa, fossil fuels have failed to end or even significantly alleviate energy poverty in recent decades. So why should the continent continue to rely on a proven inadequate form of energy?

 

Earnings from fossil energy sources hardly benefit the population

Energy resources available in Africa were and are mainly exported. They hardly contribute to the development of a healthy local energy economy. The lack of refineries in oil-rich Nigeria is a particularly striking example.

There are many reasons why export earnings from fossil energy sources have not been able to end local energy poverty. And they certainly vary from country to country. But like a common thread running through all countries is the disturbing fact that revenues from fossil energies flow lavishly into private hands: private (non-African) companies and private hands of government employees.

Behind the demand for the continued foreign investment in fossil energy sources, there is of course also the justified concern of losing an important source of income. A source of income, of course, that has not yet been used to alleviate the energy poverty of the majority of the population.

 

Renewables bring a paradigm shift

Renewable energy not only means a change in technology, but also a paradigm shift. Because there are no ownership claims on wind and sun. And renewable energies only develop their full strength in a decentralised energy system, rather than in a centrally organised one. This is a dangerous development for the centrally managed, state-owned energy companies.

But it is precisely the decentralised nature of renewables that offers an excellent opportunity to lift the entire population out of energy poverty and not just a small layer of the wealthy. This is because decentralised generation and consumption not only reduce dependence on an expensive and unreliable central energy supply, but they also reduce state influence on energy supply. Therefore, the conversion to a renewable energy supply means much more than a change in technology. It constitutes a completely new and much more promising approach.

If one wants to alleviate energy poverty and offer business and industry a reliable and cheap energy supply, there is therefore no way around renewables. This new approach should be given a chance, if only because the old one has proven so ineffective. After all, Africa is not only rich in fossil energy resources, but also in renewable energies: Wind, sun, geothermal energy, water. Namibia is currently setting the course to become a hotspot for the cost-effective production of clean hydrogen.