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Africa’s Massive Power Shortage Alleviated by China

Aug 01 , 2016
  • Robert I. Rotberg

    Founding Director of Program on Intrastate Conflict, Harvard Kennedy School

When one flies over sub-Saharan Africa at night, there are only pinpricks of light, a stark comparison to what one sees flying over Asia, Europe, or Latin America. Sub-Saharan Africa remains the “dark continent,” seriously short of electrical energy generating capacity. Industrial development is hampered almost everywhere, even in South Africa, because of insufficiencies in the power supply. Spain alone has electrical generating capacity sufficient today to power all of sub-Saharan Africa. A medium-sized Chinese city has more electricity immediately available than Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country.

Without continued Chinese assistance, the countries and peoples of sub-Saharan Africa would have no chance of obtaining enough electrical generating capacity on their own. This stark reality is especially true given the massive demographic boom now encompassing nearly all of sub-Saharan Africa. That section of the world is growing faster than any other part, including Asia. By the end of the century, today’s 1 billion sub-Saharan Africans will become 3.7 billion, the globe’s second largest conglomeration of people after Asia’s 4 billion. Moreover, the biggest countries in the world by 2100 will be India, China, Nigeria, the United States, Tanzania, Indonesia, Pakistan, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Lagos and Kinshasa will be bigger cities than Cairo and Beijing – all according to well-regarded UN Population Division estimates.

Where will the electricity to light African homes, schools, offices, and run factories come from? How will the many mines of Africa obtain power and offshore oil and gas installations survive?

Fortunately, China is providing an essential part of the answer in terms of actual construction of new facilities and the finance ($13 billion so far) that enables such enterprises to be planned and completed. Since 2010, Chinese contractors have completed or are completing more than 200 major projects, the equivalent of 17 gigawatts of installed generating capacity. That equals about 10 percent of sub-Saharan Africa’s entire provision of electricity and the total installed capacity of Finland.

Remarkably, more than half of the Chinese projects are in the renewable energy sector, including 49 percent of the total renewables provided by hydropower and 7 percent by solar, wind, and biomass. But China has also recognized that building stand-alone generating facilities is useless without the construction of new transmission facilities and lines, an area in which sub-Saharan Africa is woefully short. Moreover, Africa’s sectoral transmission grids do not interconnect. One of the dreams for Africa that China is making somewhat more realizable is an all-Africa interconnected grid that could carry power from north to south and east to west. China hopes to connect more than 120 million people, now devoid of access to power, to the grid.

In the meantime, China is busy building dams. The biggest is the Grand Renaissance Dam across the Blue Nile in Ethiopia, but large dams for hydropower are also being completed in the Sudan (across the main Nile in the vicinity of the second cataract), in southern Ethiopia, across the Kafue River in Zambia, and downstream on the Zambezi River in Mozambique. Of the 17 GW being added to sub-Saharan Africa’s total power supply, nearly 6 GW will be eastern Africa, another 6 in southern Africa.

Additionally, in West and Equatorial Africa, China is actively constructing smaller but equally important hydroelectric facilities in Senegal, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Mali, Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, Benin, Nigeria, Cameroon, the Central African Republic, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, and the Republic of Congo. More dams are going up in Angola, Zimbabwe, and Madagascar. Kenya, Uganda, and Burundi are also benefiting from Chinese dam building. Tiny Comoros is being assisted with a solar facility; Kenya, Uganda, Mali, and Senegal with wind generating facilities; Kenya with geothermal plants; and Ethiopia and Zambia with new biomass operations. China is also expanding Zimbabwe’s decrepit Hwange thermal power operation from coal and is constructing gas-fueled plants in several countries, especially in energy-deficient Nigeria.

Significant, too, is that a private Chinese company has established a solar cell fabricating plant in South Africa. Another company is building two wind tower parks in South Africa and plans to forge the blades and other parts of towers, probably also in South Africa. In the hydro-, thermal, and gas plant construction fields, five major Chinese concerns—two of which are subsidiaries of PowerChina—have captured nearly all of the new contracts.

Without Chinese help, sub-Saharan Africa’s power drought, its daily blackouts and load-shedding occurrences, and its ability to attract foreign investment, even tourists, would suffer. Fortunately, China is trading construction ability and financing for supplies of oil and other commodities. But in the process, with its upgraded infrastructure and its access to new supplies of power, the peoples of sub-Saharan Africa win.

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