COVID-19 pandemic knocked the continent off its course of extending access to reliable energy to over half of the world's population that still lack access to electricity.
  • Faith Birol, the executive director for the International Energy Agency, said Africa needs to find ways to battle the COVID-19 pandemic while continuing to extend access to energy to its population. 
  • About 600 million people on the continent lack access to reliable power, according to the World Bank, and the outbreak has delayed new infrastructure, including for solar power. 
  • Ghana’s energy minister expressed doubts that solar power on its own will enable African countries to industrialize.

Faith Birol, the executive director for the International Energy Agency, kicked off one of the year’s largest online meetings of African ministers and other international dignitaries by urging them to handle the COVID-19 pandemic while also recapturing their momentum of extending access to energy on the continent.

“While Africa’s future will be determined by Africans, there is a need for international cooperation and support [for the continent],” said Birol.

However, some African leaders disagreed with the international consensus of focusing investments solely on renewable energy, arguing that some fossil fuels, such as natural gas, can help provide power more cheaply. 

The contrasting views came Tuesday during a worldwide online gathering of African ministers from about 10 countries — as well as dignitaries from the United Nations, the European Commission, the International Monetary Fund and U.S. Power Africa, an initiative to use private-public partnerships and money to drive energy projects on the continent. Organizers said about 10,000 viewers tuned in to watch the live-streamed discussion.

600 million Africans lack reliable power

The pandemic and subsequent lockdowns have slowed economic development in Africa and hurt efforts to extend access to electricity about 600 million or over half of the world’s population on the continent that live without access to reliable power, according to the World Bank.

The continent was seeing strong gains in its electrification efforts, driven in part by the rapid development of off-grid solar power technology, which allows households in remote areas to access electricity cheaply, without the added cost of building transmission lines. The 82% drop in the cost of solar photovoltaics, or rooftop solar, since 2010, also helped spur the growth in solar power, according to the International Renewable Energy Agency.

Kenya boosted its current electrification rate to 73% from 8% in 2000 and was on track to deliver universal access to energy by 2022. Almost half of Ethiopia’s population has access to energy, up from just 5% two decades ago. The country planned to roll out an off-grid solar development project that would power the entire country in five years, when combined with other energy sources.

The pandemic halted all that development, said the IEA’s Birol. Global lockdowns and recession have caused energy investments to plummet.

The economies of the 54 countries on the continent are expected to contract by 2.8% this year, a decline from an economic growth of over 3.% in 2019, says the International Monetary Fund. African public coffers are expected to suffer a $92 billion loss this year, a decline of around a quarter compared to what was expected last year.

Africa disproportionately affected by climate change

Still, dignitaries such as Amina J. Mohammed, the deputy secretary-general of the United Nations, urged the international community to salvage some of Africa’s energy gains, especially in renewable energy. Renewables are seen as crucial in the global energy transition away from fossil fuels linked to rising global temperatures and more extreme weather patterns, such as droughts or flooding.

Africa contributes to about 2% of global carbon emissions but is disproportionately affected by climate change due to factors including its geographical location, say experts.

“Our common task of eradicating poverty and achieving the [sustainable development goals] 2030 agenda has never been more urgent,“ Mohammed said. “At the same time, climate change presents life-altering changes and we cannot tackle it and the global crisis separately.” 

The continent needs up to $170 billion dollars a year to meet its energy infrastructure needs, says the African Development Bank. Mohammed urged governments to work together to find ways for the continent to “lead the energy revolution and avoid the high-polluting, expensive energy trajectory” in other emerging markets.

Ghana minister: How can countries industrialize on solar power?

Some at the meeting disagreed, arguing that Africa’s electrification efforts have also been underpinned by the development and extraction of natural gas, which, experts say, has a lower carbon emission footprint compared with other fossil fuels like oil.

The continent is home to about 10 sovereign oil and gas producers, including Nigeria and Angola.

Oil exporting countries such as Ghana, which discovered hydrocarbons off its coast in the last two decades, have used natural gas finds to feed domestic power plants and balance dependency on hydropower, said Ghana’s Energy Minister John-Peter Amewu. The country has boosted its electrification rate to 86% and is on track to provide its citizens with universal access to electricity in the next few years.

Amewu expressed doubts that solar energy will produce enough power on its own to allow countries to fuel heavy industrial activities, such as manufacturing, that are critical to job creation, economic growth and achieving UN development goals.

”As much as we all have intentions of migrating to green energy, we should not dare to do this in such a way that newly industrialized countries begin to suffer,“ Amewu said. “I don’t see how Ghana is going to industrialize with the green revolution that we are talking about.The energy efficiency intensity of hydrocarbons is still slightly cheaper than solar energy. I don’t see how any African country is going to industrialize with solar energy.”