Bringing access to modern energy services to the more than 620 million people (in 2012) and increasing in sub-Saharan Africa – almost half of the global total – currently living without access is one of the major challenges facing African countries in their quest for development.
In urban areas access will be via connections to the grid. But with almost 80% of those without access living in rural areas where grid extensions can quickly become cost prohibitive, mini-grid and off-grid solutions are expected to play a key role in electrification, according to the International Energy Agency’s (IEA) new “Africa Energy Outlook.” [Engerati-Supporting Growth With Africa’s T&D Infrastructure and Minigrids - A High Impact Technology For Rural Electrification]
Up to 200,000 mini-grids by 2040
Under its New Policies (essentially business as usual) scenario, the IEA projects that over the period to 2040 approximately 950 million people will gain access to electricity in sub-Saharan Africa (still leaving some 635 million people in the region without access).
Of these, in the rural areas 315 million people will gain access, with around 80 million people through off-grid systems (providing 12TWh) and 140 million through mini-grids (providing 26TWh). The comparison between these two options turns on the density of settlement, with higher density favouring the development of mini-grids. Depending on the number of households connected to each system, this could require the development of between 100,000 and 200,000 mini-grids in the region.
The main technologies available for these types of systems will be diesel generators or renewable energy technologies, including solar PV, small hydropower and small wind systems. By 2040 in both mini-grid and off-grid systems solar PV is expected to contribute the largest share (37% in mini-grid and 47% in off-grid systems) followed by diesel generators (32% and 35% respectively), then small hydro and wind and very small amounts of bioenergy. Put another way, two-thirds of the mini-grid and off-grid systems in rural areas in 2040 are powered by solar PV, small hydro or wind.
In terms of costs, these new mini-grids and off-grid systems are expected to account for about 30% of the total US$205 billion capital investment in electrification that is projected to bring the rate in sub-Saharan Africa up from 32% today to 70% in 2040.
Regional challenges for rural electrification in sub-Saharan Africa
The IEA notes in its New Policies scenario projections some distinctive regional developments within sub-Saharan Africa, highlighting the challenges for rural electrification.
● Nigeria brings electricity access to more people than any other country in Africa, reducing the absolute number of those without access by around 40% by 2040. However, the rural population without access sees only a small decrease in absolute terms, thereby accounting for around 80% of Nigerians without access in 2040. Other parts of West Africa see continued progress in raising electrification rates, such that, by 2040, West Africa has the highest electrification rate (80%) of all the African sub-regions. Outside Nigeria, around 85% of those remaining without access in West Africa in 2040 are in rural areas.
● The problem of electricity access is more persistent in Central Africa. Although some countries, like Equatorial Guinea and Gabon start from relatively high electrification rates and continue to make progress, others, like Chad and the Central African Republic, start from a very low base. More than half of the total population of this sub-region remains without access in 2040 in the IEA’s projections. Countries with very low population densities, like Congo, face particularly severe challenges in bringing electricity to their rural communities.
● East Africa is the sub-region which achieves the most rapid pace of growth in providing electricity access, with Ethiopia, Kenya and Rwanda leading the way; but a large part of the rural population here, too, remains without access: one-third of the sub-Saharan African population remaining without access in 2040 consists of rural communities in East Africa. The challenge is particularly acute for Ethiopia, which currently has the world’s second-largest rural population without access to electricity (almost 70 million).
● In South Africa, the government aims to reach a 97% electrification rate by 2025 through a combination of on-grid and off-grid technologies (mainly solar home systems). This target is achieved by 2030 in the IEA’s projections and a 100% electrification is reached in the late 2030s. Progress with electrification in Mozambique and Tanzania is helped by an expansion of gas use in the power sector, but also by a large push for mini-grid and off-grid solutions in rural areas. [Engerati-Mini-grids Coming To Rural Tanzania] In other parts of Southern Africa, good progress is made as well, notably in Botswana and Zambia.
Increasing the total power sector investment up to more than 1.5% of GDP (compared with 1.3% of GDP for the New Policies scenario), under this African Century case the IEA projects an additional 230 million people gaining access to electricity, more than 70% of them in rural areas, and the growth in supply coming predominantly from mini-grid or off-grid solutions.