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Regional Integration

Regional Integration Feature Article


The possibility of regional integration in the supply of power in Southern Africa

FFD interviewed Saliem Fakir from the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), head of the newly formed Living Planet Unit. We asked Saliem some questions regarding energy and integration.

Are there any current projects that rely on regional cooperation?

In Southern Africa there are attempts at regional cooperation at three levels:

  • SADC initiatives;
  • The Southern African Power Pool, and;
  • Nepad (Africa Europe Action Plan).

Africa has significant potential for hydro-power – think of the Zambezi-basin in Zambia (Kariba Dam), Mozambique’s Cahora Bassa and the planned Stiegler Gorge hydropower programme in Tanzania.

In a number of northern African countries there is the Desertec programme, a large-scale renewables project with their biggest buyer being Europe. The grand vision is intercontinental power supply by means of concentrated solar-thermal power (CSP) plants in northern Africa. High-Voltage Direct Current transmission (HVDC) is used to transport the electricity to Europe.

What are your projected outcomes for these projects?

In Southern Africa there are a number of projects (that will be) able to supply electricity in the excess of 500 MW each – Grand Inga (DRC), 39 000MW; Stiegler Gorge (Tanzania), 2 100 MW; Cahora Bassa (Mozambique), 1 920 MW; Kariba Dam (Zambia), 1 320 MW, and; Inga Shaba (DRC), 560 MW.

The problem, however, is that, for grid connected electricity systems, you need an electricity highway to take the electricity to where it is needed. (HVDC is now the method of choice as very little electricity is ‘lost’ in the process.)

A critical issue in Africa is the parallel development of infrastructure to that of transporting generated energy (together with the energy projects itself).

Most of Africa’s grid infrastructure is in Northern Africa and then in South Africa where the grid connection is about the size of Western Europe.

As far as development is concerned, SA will first have to benefit from a secure supply from other countries in order to then give back to the rest of the region. If SA were to buy a lot of power (in advance) it could stimulate energy creation in other countries. This will require:

  • a formula for sharing benefits amongst the countries, and;
  • political stability.

A case in point is the Grand Inga project in the DRC. South Africa cannot develop the project on its own – it needs partners to help with the financing. Since the Congo is not a politically stable country, it will be a very risky investment.

So, it’s a nice idea but, for now, not very viable option.

How big is the issue of infrastructure?

Africa have an uneven market – the same amount of electricity is not used everywhere, with very high usage put against vast areas where no electricity is available.

The World Bank’s current projection of 7% growth for Africa lies mostly in mining, other extractive industries, some manufacturing and agriculture.

Investment in infrastructure is a long-term commitment while for power stations it usually would be between 20-30 years (if nuclear, 40 years are more correct). New mines currently being developed might have an estimated lifetime of 30 years. So there is no reason for mines to invest in more expansive infrastructure beyond their own border, although it really depends on whether the energy is of a premium value and the mining business can recover the costs over a relatively quick period.

Another challenge is rapid urbanisation: in 30-50 years time between 60-70% of Africa will be urbanised. The pace of urbanization is superseding the ability to provide infrastructure for basic needs.

The economies of poorer countries are largely dependent on the minerals and other resources these countries have to sell. The royalties, taxes or revenues are often not sufficient to invest in infrastructure and thus no real development takes place.

For a country to be able to put a strong infrastructure in place, it needs a strong tax base and growth in income of the population.

The challenges for grid connection in Africa – apart from putting it in place – are the need for a highway to transport the electricity; sustainable economies to maintain the infrastructure, and a strong and growing tax base.

What will we see happening in Africa in the next 30-40 years in terms of ‘conventional’ (grid-based) power supply?

Power supply will follow one of three models:

  • Central grids in the big cities – this will be very exclusive, mainly because of the cost of building new and maintaining current infrastructure and may not meet the needs to everybody.
  • Autonomous supply – large companies who need a reliable power supply for their business will start investing in providing in their own needs. Again it will also be very exclusive. For instance, certain mining companies are already talking about building their own power plants in SA. SASOL is almost self-sufficient and will in the future probably not be dependent on the central grid.
  • Off grid – households in cities and in rural areas will resort to other forms of energy, such as gas, kerosene, coal, solar etc. as they cannot afford to buy into the central grid supply.

Why not focus on the development of off-grid models then?

Africa may be the only continent where we are in a position for a major leapfrog in off-grid power supply because it allows for modular development of off-grid power supply where central grid solutions are costly and take time. So, there is tremendous scope for off-grid innovation or solutions.

But one needs vision to realise this:

  • high income possibility in future
  • customers willing to switch to off-grid
  • the necessary technology is available.

For off-grid models – e.g. gas and renewables such as sun and wind – the long-term cost lies in the storage as well as the breakthrough for renewables. Storage solution innovations lay in:

  • chemical storage such as batteries;
  • molten salt, and;
  • compressed air.

Once these technical issues are resolved, together with bringing down the cost, it may be more feasible for very large-scale off-grid solutions.

In large scale off-grid models, wind and micro-wind systems are fairly mature.

Photo-voltaics (PVs – used to generate solar power) has seen a cost reduction of nearly 40% in the last two years, mainly thanks to manufacturing in China. However, I’m not sure if concentrated solar power will work in SA at present because of the high cost and the need for more technological innovation and optimisation.

PV has also other challenges. We have the problem of PV panels being stolen. The price for these panels must come down further in order for it to be valueless on the black market and for it to be adopted more readily by ordinary households.

Natural gas is not a big option for households, even in countries where gas is mined, because of a lack in infrastructure. This gas is mostly exported and the money received not reinvested in the creation of infrastructure, as already discussed.

What is the South African government’s stance?

At the moment SA is very focused on its central grid system. This is largely viewed by consumers as more modern and of a higher standard. We need a mindset change.

We might find that in next revision of this plan (expected in the next year or two) the importance of gas for power generation will grow.

At the moment off-grid is very niche and expensive. Once the cost of electricity gets too high, consumers can be thrown off the grid. Indeed many protests in townships relate to not having grid connection as well as not being able to afford electricity.

Apart from electricity, how do you see the use of fuel in Africa in the next couple of decades?

I don’t think we will have a big uptake in electric cars – for this one needs good grid management, the costs need to come down and electric cars need to compete with internal combustion cars in terms of mileage per unit of energy. Because of the high levels of income inequality of the populace, the big investment in future will be in public transport. I can’t see cars being a dominant factor in Africa as it is in Europe and North America, because this depends on future fuel prices and income growth. The continued development of light vehicles, with improvement in the internal combustion engine, as well as better fuel consumption, is also an option. Motorbikes are also a possibility. If one look at the way it is already being used in some African cities as the preferred mode of transport.

Interview conducted by Frieda le Roux.


Frieda le Roux, Freelance futurist, journalist

Read more about the author and her view on being a futurist.




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