Transforming the energy future of SADC

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The Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) region is endowed with abundant natural energy resources both renewable and non-renewable that are available to propel its economic development. Contrastingly, the region is by far-and-large energy insecure with more than 50% of the population without access to clean and affordable energy while electricity supply is neither adequate nor stable.

Addressing the energy future of the SADC region will, therefore, require a holistic approach that embraces different stakeholders and at the same time is open to innovative business models, if the noble objectives the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) are to be attained.

The energy scenario

All urban areas and other significant load centres in most SADC Member States (MS) are connected to grid electricity, largely derived from thermal power plants (powered by coal, gas, nuclear (only in South Africa)) and hydropower, as outlined in Figure 1 below, for Southern African Power Pool (SAPP) MS. Recent developments in South Africa through the reverse auction programme has brought on grid significant solar and wind power.

Figure 1: SAPP Generation Mix in 2015

• Source: Adapted from SAPP reports and other sources

The continental countries are interconnected through high voltage transmission lines except for Angola, Malawi and Tanzania. This means that interconnected countries can trade in electric energy through bilateral contracts and the Day Ahead Market, thus providing immense benefits to the region through security of supply and dispatch of least-cost power stations, amongst others.

The rural/off-grid areas are the least developed in all countries with electricity access as low as seven (7%) percent in some countries.  The rural inhabitants rely on solid biomass, and paraffin and wax candles for thermal and lighting needs thus putting them at high risk of indoor air pollution.  Additionally, there are also serious socio-economic and environmental ramifications from the use of such energy sources. The challenges that come with provision of clean and affordable energy sources in rural areas are largely to do with the economic activities in these areas that unfortunately cannot support a return on investment of energy provision with the current energy supply models – which are centred on extension of distribution power lines.

The Sustainable Development Goal # 7 is specific on energy access, renewable energy and energy efficiency with the following indicators:

By 2030, ensure universal access to affordable, reliable and modern energy services;

By 2030, increase substantially the share of renewable energy (RE) in the global energy mix;

By 2030, double the global rate of improvement in energy efficiency (EE);

Equally important are indicators on international cooperation on access to cleaner energy technologies.

The Energy supply challenges

Provision of grid electricity is insecure across the supply chain from generation, transmission to distribution. As highlighted above, generation is largely thermal and hydropower based, both of which have drawbacks of their own.  Coal is a finite resource that pollutes the environment during extraction and conversion to final energy for use in homes and industries. The majority of thermal power plants are over 30 years old hence they are inefficient and suffer from frequent breakdowns. Hydropower is clean and affordable but recent drought spells have exposed our vulnerability to nature. Hydropower power stations along the river basins of Zambezi, Shire, Kafue, Great Usutu, Ruacana and many others elsewhere were operating well below their rated capacities for the greater part of 2015 and 2016 due to low water levels.  Scientists have predicted a drier scenario in the coming years due to climate change thus increasing the risk of our reliance on hydropower.

Transmission infrastructure is not adequate and neither is it resilient enough to transport the generated or demanded power. Power outages are reported on regular basis along the critical transmission corridors that link the northern and southern parts of the SAPP MS.  Distribution is the weakest link in the power supply chain due to very high technical and non-technical losses ranging from 15 to 30%.

An equally problematic area on the demand-side of the energy supply chain is the inefficiency in consumption of power in homes and industry. Studies indicate that energy intensity (often used as a proxy indicator of the energy efficiency of a nation’s economy, measuring the amount of energy (in megajoules) required to produce one US dollar of GDP) is very high in Southern Africa compared to the global average

• Source: Derived from The World Bank (http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/EG.EGY.PRIM.PP.KD)

Energy is a key input to production and the high inefficiencies due to lack of awareness and use of inefficient devices render SADC’s products uncompetitive on the market. To a certain extent, awareness of this barrier is now there as pointed out in the SADC Industrialisation Strategy and Roadmap (2015-2063) which acknowledges that its goal is hampered by inadequate and poor infrastructure (which includes energy) amongst other constraints.

The Way-forward

The SADC region needs to radicalise its planning and actions to meet the SDGs goals. The population is growing at approximately 1% per annum and GDP is averaging a suppressed 4% per annum and these parameters are putting pressure on the existing infrastructure.  Proper energy planning, execution and innovation are therefore critical. A combination of energy efficiency practices and renewable energy technologies should be prioritised in the energy mix going forward so as to address both energy access and energy security. The intermittency of solar and wind is often sited as a barrier to its dispatch but this notion is not entirely true for an integrated market like SAPP as well as the increasingly cost competitive storage devices that include pumped hydro, both stationary and mobile batteries, etc.  Smart technology is making the integration of renewables and energy efficiency much easier.

Roof top solar, solar thermal technologies, solar home systems, bio-digesters, etc. are still at embryonic stage in all SADC countries but have a huge potential to address the energy challenges.

The solutions sound much easier than done, but this is not possible without an enabling policy and regulatory environment that is translated into sound planning and execution.  Integrated resource planning (IRPs) is increasingly being adopted by energy planners in the region. The skills of our planners need to be upped so that they don’t necessarily adopt the IRP blueprints wholesomely but adapt these to factor-in local conditions that require equal importance to be given to issues such as energy access.  SADC needs skills that will integrate sustainable energy in various regional strategies such as those for industrialisation, agriculture, gender, climate change amongst many others.

With meticulous planning and creating a record of efficient project implementation at both public and private sector level, financing should be the least of barriers to a sustainable energy future for SADC. The bottom line is that there is no silver bullet to our energy challenges except that we all need to work together and contribute to a democratised energy system.

• About other:

Kudakwashe (Kuda) Ndhlukula is the Executive Director of the SADC Centre for Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency (SACREEE), based in Namibia, whose mandate is to promote market based adoption of renewable energy and energy efficiency technologies, practices and services contributing to the sustainable development agenda of the SADC region.

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