Energy for Africa – let’s put access into perspective

Europe's World

Asia, Africa & Emerging Economies

Picture of Lapo Pistelli
Lapo Pistelli

Executive Vice-President for International Affairs of Eni and former deputy Italian minister of foreign affairs

Photo of This article is part of Friends of Europe’s “Energy for Development” discussion paper.
This article is part of Friends of Europe’s “Energy for Development” discussion paper.

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Show more information on This article is part of Friends of Europe’s “Energy for Development” discussion paper.

Developing and emerging economies face a complex challenge when it comes to their energy infrastructure: they must meet the needs of growing populations that still lack access to basic services like water and electricity but – the climate crisis front and centre – they must also be part of the solution by answering the global climate emergency through innovative efforts to ensure a low-carbon future.

The Paris Agreement, which will officially enter into force in 2020, asks that each country contribute to mitigating and adapting to climate change. Setting it in motion requires collaborative efforts in the field of social, technological and financial innovations as well as the strong commercial development and application of solutions. In this regards, Sustainable Development Goal 7 (SDG 7) aims to ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all, and while the number of people without access to electricity fell to below 1 billion in 2017, there is still a long way to go.

In September 2019, UN Secretary-General António Guterres convened the Climate Action Summit to mobilise political leaders, economic actors, and climate activists around the implementation of the Paris Agreement. With only ten years left to achieve the SDGs, and national governments offering less-than-inspiring solutions to a global crisis, Friends of Europe has brought together some of the key actors from the private sector, think tanks, development agencies, and supranational organisations, to highlight some of the stories of progress on the provision of clean sources of electricity, and the effect it has had on living conditions in a number of economies.

Articles in this discussion paper are published online on a weekly basis, beginning on the day of the United Nations Secretary-General Summit on Climate Action and ending at the time of COP 25 in Santiago. The articles, and the recommendations from the publication, aim to demonstrate that it is possible to achieve SDG 7 well before 2030, and inform the next EU mandate on actions to take. The European Green Deal has a duty to go beyond Europe, and help nations around the world to transition towards sustainable economic and energy growth.

With just over a decade left to the target date, the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals Summit in September marked a turning point for understanding where the world stands in achieving the Agenda 2030. It is apparent that extra efforts should be devoted to Africa, particularly in light of the slow progress seen in providing access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all (SDG7) in the region.

SDG7 will not be reached if Africa is left behind. The progress report on SDG7 shows that, while there is considerable improvement on electrification globally – growing from 78% in 2000 to 89% in 2017 – the world will fall short of meeting the target at its current rate of implementation. Africa plays a considerable role in this possible setback. Out of the 840mn people currently without access to electricity on the planet, short of 600mn live in sub-Saharan Africa. This figure is not expected to improve by 2030.

If we broaden the spectrum and look at poverty rates, Africa stands out once again. Out of the 736mn people who lived in extreme poverty in 2015, 413mn were in sub-Saharan Africa, and this number is expected to continue to rise, despite a decreasing trend in the percentage worldwide.

The special role that energy plays in triggering development and reducing poverty is universally recognised. This notion also has a political bearing: the public policy push needed to support Africa’s energy transformation should be rooted in the basic principle that energy can be used as a means of improving people’s wellbeing and economic development, and not just be seen as a goal in itself.

While electricity plays a key role in Africa’s energy transformation, cleaner fuels and technologies for cooking are needed to improve public health and avoid environmental degradation

Energy is a fundamental component in the achievement of virtually all development goals, particularly in the areas of poverty eradication, health, gender equality, industrialisation and access to jobs.In the context of the entry into force of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) in 2019, African leaders are fully recognising this principle by adopting a continent-wide approach to energy and infrastructure, which aims at having a transformational effect on every aspect of African development and integration.

The concepts of access to energy and electrification warrant clarification. Firstly, from a policy perspective, the binary definition of access to energy (i.e. connected vs. unconnected household) energy does “not help us understand the phenomenon of expanding energy access and how it impacts socioeconomic development”. Instead, access to energy should be understood as meaning that energy is affordable, reliable, healthy (for both people and the environment) and that it is safe, legal, and available for households, community facilities and productive uses.

Secondly, the concept of electrification is sometimes used synonymously with energy. Electrification refers to the development of electricity grids, which often leaves out energy used for cooking, heating and transport.

While electricity plays a key role in Africa’s energy transformation, cleaner fuels and technologies for cooking are needed to improve public health and avoid environmental degradation.The uptake of clean fuel (such as liquefied petroleum gas [LPG], natural gas and electricity) in Africa has been outpaced by population growth. The data is staggering. It is estimated that over 860mn people are dependent on inefficient and highly polluting cooking systems in sub-Saharan Africa, with very limited progress being recorded.

Given the size of the challenge and its multifaceted nature, it is clear that a mix of technology solutions and approaches are needed to make the African energy transformation happen

As for transport, renewable energy penetration is proving extremely slow as a worldwide initiative, let alone in low-income countries. It calls for the adoption of low-emission fuels, such as compressed natural gas (CNG), deriving from domestic African resources and used in conjunction with any other decarbonisation option.

Given the size of the challenge and its multifaceted nature, it is clear that a mix of technology solutions and approaches are needed to make the African energy transformation happen. Eni pursues three main routes in tackling this challenge.

The first component requires the development of domestic energy markets. In terms of its activity and productivity in the continent, Eni is the largest integrated energy company. Giving energy access to the people living in the communities where Eni operates is a key company priority. In sub-Saharan Africa, Eni provides electricity to over 18mn people; in Nigeria, Eni provides 20% of the nation’s electricity supply and is working on increasing the country’s power generation capacity by 15%. In the Republic of Congo, Eni’s ‘Centrale Électrique du Congo’ power plant supplies over 60% of the country’s electricity demand.

Historically, Eni has been active in developing Africa’s domestic gas resources. These present the potential to replace highly polluting energy sources such as coal, unsustainable biomass and oil-based fuels. Operations in Egypt (Zohr), Ghana (OCTP) and Mozambique (Coral South) will contribute substantially to the countries’ energy stability and revenues. Overall, Eni currently supplies the domestic gas markets in 14 African countries (56 bn cubic metres in 2017), of which 10 receive 100% of the entire production. Supplying domestic markets is instrumental in developing regional value chains and added value production, which creates the demand for high-skilled jobs, generating a virtuous development circle.

The challenges of the African continent require that the public and the private sector join forces by identifying common priorities

The second route involves investment in renewable energy generation, notably in Africa. Together with Sonatrach, Eni has launched a 10 MW solar plant in Bir Rebaa North in Algeria, to be followed by other projects in 2019. In Tunisia, together with ETAP, the company started construction on a 10 MW photovoltaic plant and a 5MW innovative hybrid system integrating solar PV with storage and gas, powering the Tataouine industrial site.

In addition to these projects, Eni has signed partnership agreements and Memorandum of Understanding (MoUs) with national energy companies and government agencies to develop renewable business in Algeria, Egypt, Angola, Tunisia and Ghana. These are the first steps of an ambitious strategy, which will lead us to reach 5GW of installed capacity by 2025 for a total investment of €1.4 bn for 2019-2022.

Finally, the third method focuses on partnerships to maximise impact. The challenges of the African continent require that the public and the private sector join forces by identifying common priorities and by mutually reinforcing their actions. Embracing this principle, Eni signed a first-of-its-kind MoU with the UN Development Programme (UNDP) in 2018 to maximise the benefits of renewable energy, climate mitigation, forestry, energy efficiency and clean cooking projects in Africa.

Despite SDG7 being deemed ‘within reach’, it will not be met without a focus on Africa

In a similar spirit, Eni has just signed a joint declaration with the UN Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO), which focuses on areas of common interest, including renewable energy. As it fully realises the importance of the water, energy and food security nexus, the company also has an established cooperation with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO) on access to clean water in Nigeria.

Making the African energy transformation happen requires a holistic approach that takes into account the complexity of the energy system. This approach should also acknowledge the role that sustainable, affordable and reliable energy plays for the achievement of SDGs at large.

Access to energy also means stability of the power grid and adequacy of the supply. Joint development of gas and renewables is the best way forward to replacing highly polluting sources, supporting the integration of variable renewables in the grid and supplying sustainable energy for productive uses. Furthermore, cleaner fuels such as CNG and LPG have an opportunity to reduce emissions and health-related problems linked to the transport and cooking sector in Africa.

Despite SDG7 being deemed ‘within reach’, it will not be met without a focus on Africa. As Eni strives to develop domestic energy markets, invest in renewables and pursue strategic partnerships with key development players, it puts access to sustainable, reliable and affordable energy at the centre of its strategy and its long-term commitment to Africa.

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