Giorgio Valentino Federici
University of Florence, Italy
Africa, in particular the sub-Saharan one, will need energy for its development, possibly obtained from renewable sources. Projects for the construction of large hydroelectric infrastructures, together with the use of photovoltaic and wind power, can meet this goal by reducing environmental impact and limiting the use of fossil fuels. They could be developed in cooperation of the European Union, for a Euro-African ecological transition.
In the scenarios bound to the Next Generation European Union for the year 2050 and beyond it, the international context, especially the African one, is not adequately taken into account. In the envisaged scenarios (2050, 2100) the most significant driver will be demography (Livi Bacci, 2015). The African and Sub-Saharan populations will become increasingly meaningful and the conditions for their human development will be decisive as well. Could living standards be improved in an area that by 2050 will be inhabited by ¼ of the world’s population and 2/3 of the 10.900 million global citizens predicted for 2100 by the United Nations (Neodemos, website)? An even greater number of Sub-Saharan youngsters, who are already connected to the world, will be wanting to better their condition and to be able to move.
What is the starting point? Nowadays, more than 17% of the world’s population lives in Africa. However, the continent’s global energy consumption is just 4% and the daily income of half of the population of Sub-Saharan Africa is around 1 $.
Therefore, the first issue I will be discussing is: to what extent will renewable energy sources (water, wind, solar, bio-fuels) exploited for the production of electricity, which is an essential element for development, be able to contribute to the gradual transition of the African continent out of poverty, as well as to what extent this issue might be related to the European Green Deal.
I would like to start by mentioning the hydroelectric potentials of the African continent and especially of the Congo River, which is basically intact: it has been a renewable resource available for decades, which has not been significantly affected by the climate change hypothesized to date.
There are approved projects by the countries of the African Union for the hydroelectric development of the Congo Basin that ought to be completed quicker with the partnership of the European Union, which only recently has been realizing what a great opportunity of energetic development this could represent for the African citizens and directly or indirectly for the European population. Moreover, with regard to migration flows, which seems to concern European citizens the most, it is clear that only by creating African developmental points of convergence allowing fruitful migration flows within Africa, it will be possible to offer alternative options to the movements towards Europe.
With the dissolution of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, Africa has basically ceased to count in geopolitics. China was the only country to understand Africa’s potentials in time and it took over a space making it a leader country in many parts of Africa. With reference to Congo, the 50-years’ concession for the exploitation of cobalt mines in the southern regions of the Democratic Republic of Congo made China the world leader in battery production. Congo’s mining exploitation is and will be closely linked to the river’s hydroelectric development, in particular with hydroelectric power plants in the Inga area, which are located close to the river mouth. As we shall see, China is a key player in the construction of such power stations as well.
Out of poverty: energy and electricity
No development is possible without energy, especially without electricity.
The transition from renewable energy sources (with annual, seasonal or daily cycles: human and animal labor, water and wind mills, sunshine for fauna and flora) to non-renewable energy sources like fossil fuels for the production of electricity has produced an acceleration in human history, which in just two centuries (Smil, 2020) has enabled an extraordinary demographic growth with a simultaneous increase of the HDI, the Human Development Indices (Federici, 2018).
There would have never had an industrial revolution, if mankind had to rely solely on renewable resources. Nowadays there are no examples anymore of countries emerging from poverty using exclusively renewable energy. It is exactly thanks to cheap energy’s production and transportation deriving from fossil fuels (oil and natural gas) that several countries (with a total of about 5 billion people) have become even richer and/or have freed themselves from poverty through the control and trade of those sources. Those countries are currently virtually emitting all the greenhouse gases that are causing global warming. They are trying to tackle such an issue by declaring a reduction in emissions, albeit the different paces and the modest results so far.
On the other hand, some 3 billion people will still not have benefitted from the energy transition from renewable sources to fossil fuels and from the access to electricity in 2021 and will therefore livein poverty. Those people live in areas of the planet where the most significant demographic growth is expected between 2050 and 2100. Especially Africa with around 600 million people out of its total 1.4 billion inhabitants has no access to electricity.
Beyond recent declarations of principle, it seems that Europe is neither intending to concretely address such issues, nor understanding the fundamentally beneficial role it could play not only for African, but also for European citizens.
The “Green” contribution to the African development
To date, a strategy for energy development limiting carbon dioxide emissions can only benefit from renewable resources and from the option offered by nuclear power. The possibility of using nuclear power stations on the African continent, however futuristic it may sound, is instead an option pursued by certain countries (especially by China and Russia), which are foreseeing a future colonization of the continent (Il caffè geopolitico, website). However, it is not the nuclear option that I am intending to dwell.
The African Union has long identified a number of areas suitable for large-scale hydroelectric power plants: the Congo River basin, with a potential of 774 TWh (one terawatt hour is equal to one billion kWh) per year, the Nile basin in Ethiopia (290 TWh) and the Zambezi basin (38 TWh). Were those resources fully exploited, the continent’s needs in the medium terms could be extensively covered.
On those watercourses there are already a number of major projects underway, some of which, such as the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, are troublesome and divisive among various African countries. The environmental impact of these large-scale projects must be taken into account, nonetheless the benefits are highly substantial.
The hydroelectric exploitation of the Congo River seems to be unifying the interests of plenty of countries. Moreover, it has a very low environmental impact. Let’s take a closer look at the Grand Inga Project at the river mouth.
The Grand Inga Project
The project was adopted by the African Union (AU) as part of its 50-years’ plan for coordinated development “Agenda 2063 (2013-2063)”, in which the vast majority of African countries, especially Sub-Saharan ones, are involved (African Blue Economy Strategy). According to UA, the project is closely related to the achievement of the MDGs-Millennium Development Goals. The exploitation of such a resource by several nations is based on the creation of a transmission network extended to most of Africa with an alternation of alternating and direct current at high voltage, which might even reach Europe. Such a network would obviously enable the connection of solar and wind power plant distributed throughout the territory, making it similar to the Italian transmission network.
In the Grand Inga Project power stations with a capacity of 40 GW (one Gigawatt is equal to one million kW) are planned, with an expected output of 260 TWh. To understand the relevance of such amount a reader only needs to compare it with the values of the total installed electric power on earth, which was 1308 GW in 2019 with a generated energy of 4306 TWh. The Italian energy peak was of 58 GW in August 2019. The capacity of Italian hydroelectric power plants in 2019 was 22.9 GW. Hydroelectric power plants in Africa had an installed capacity of 37 GW.
It is therefore an energy potential that could have an extraordinary impact on the development not only of DROC but also for a large part of the African continent!
Hydroelectric power plants in suitable locations guarantee long-term production (over a hundred years, if properly maintained) at a lower cost compared with any other energy resource. The average global cost of hydroelectric power in 2019 was 0.047 $ per kWh. For the development of the 40 GW Grand Inga Project a cost of 0.03 $ per kWh is estimated.
Thanks to the permanent water flow of the river, Inga’s plants are essentially of the run-of-the-river type and do not have large storage volumes, which means they need small reservoirs. The river’s flow is only reduced to a few tens of kilometers before flowing into the Atlantic Ocean. Such an environmental impact is clearly modest, although it will surely be opposed by rafting champions, who will no longer be able to fully enjoy Inga’s rapids!
Nonetheless, for Africa and especially for Sub-Saharan Africa, the exploitation of this renewable, permanent energy resource, which is not significantly affectable by climate change, has both very low costs of production and modest environmental impact, would be a strong harbinger for the development of the continent’s population. It should also be noted that the project does not involve the displacement of large populations: the area is inhabited by several ten thousand of people (37.000 according to the NGO TERRALINE (Website), which regards the project with high criticism), who could finally be helped out of poverty.
Benefits for the Sub-Saharan African population
In 2020 the annual growth of electricity consumption per capita in kWh was as follows: USA 11.730, Italy 4.703, Nigeria 115, DROC 72. All the other Sub-Saharan states have quite low allocations except for South Africa, which has 3.668 kWh available per capita thanks to energy import from the huge Cabora Bassa hydroelectric energy plant on the Zambezi River in Mozambique and other hydroelectric plants in Lesotho over 50 years.
In 2060, assuming Grand Inga being operative and a hypothesized interconnection being present, the average annual electricity availability per capita on the entire Sub-Saharan region (which is ¼ of the world’s population) might reach around a thousand kWh per capita.
According to GEIDCO, the estimated energy availability in 2100 will be 658 TWh (which is the entire potential of the Congo Basin) allowing an electricity growth for 35% of the world’s population of about 2.000 kWh per capita. This energy would be employed for both civil and industrial purposes enabling industrialization, which is currently lacking. Unfortunately, today’s small plants in Inga (1 GW) are exploited for mining development and not even partly for civil purposes. These plants are managed by a consortium led by GEIDCO, a Chinese company operating the world’s largest hydroelectric plant: the three Gorges on the Yangtze River (22.5 GW). As mentioned earlier, China agreed with DROC on the 50-years’ exploitation of cobalt mines located along the southern Congo Basin.
Projects concerning solar energy in Africa
This paragraph shows a brief outline of how solar energy (both photovoltaic and thermal) is being developed in Africa also by means of comparison with hydroelectric projects. The electrification of Africa is underway (Puig, 2021). Private companies from several countries, including European ones, have partnerships in African countries, especially with the aim of distributing electricity supply, mainly based on photovoltaic energy, on the territory. The goal consists in, among other things, to set up mini-grids for small communities, which are often not connected to national electricity distribution networks because of their complete absence or their deficiency.
As for large solar power plant projects, the DESERTEC project (Website) ought to be mentioned. The idea came up in the late 1980s after the Chernobyl accident provoked a crisis in the field of European nuclear development. The project aims at using deserts around the world for the creation of solar power plants, which, according to the members of the DESERTEC foundation (established in 2009), could potentially solve the planet’s energy difficulties. The project has also been adopted in the Sahara Desert and involves mainly the MENA countries, which include Mediterranean North African countries, as well as Middle Eastern countries.
At the beginning the aim was to bring electricity to Europe using the Sahara Desert, in what was described as a “neo-colonial” project. Today’s project instead aims at encouraging the growth of the MENA countries. The possibilities offered by solar energy have however some drawbacks specific to African countries: such issues are related to their intermittency, making them of little use for industrial development, material procurement and land consumption (Seminara and Carli, in this volume). Additionally, the management of distributed generation (at a small community level) based on solar panels and batteries may present serious maintenance and above all safety issues. Certain Sub-Saharan states have no territorial control to prevent equipment theft from small plants on large areas.
In terms of occupied soil, a comparison between hydroelectric and photovoltaic energy density (power in kW per unit of occupied area) is merciless. The installed capacity of Italian photovoltaic plants in 2018 (TERNA, website) was 20.108 GW and such plants occupied an area of 301,171 km2.
Plants Energy density
Photovoltaic energy Italy 67 kW/km2
Grand Inga power station 177.000 kW/km2
Average hydroelectric power stations in Switzerland 56,000 kW/km2
Is poverty sustainable?
Large projects concerning hydroelectric power are often fought back by environmental movements and NGOs operating in Africa, which have reported to the local population both the limited benefits of large dams, as has sometimes been the case to date, and the environmental concerns. Even potential international sponsors, such as the World Bank Group, regard these projects suspiciously, due to the link with corruption, common to African countries. In the last twenty years such suspiciousness has led to a drastic reduction of international funding for infrastructures (dams, roads, transport), which are a fundamental development factor, in African countries. Funds have instead been invested in social assistance and small-scale solar and wind powered plants, which are favored in terms of “sustainable development”, as they could also be introduced into developing countries. Even the United Nations shared the view that no development could have been possible without energy and infrastructures, in stark contrast to what has been happening in wealthier countries.
The opposition of certain NGOs to the construction of large and small dams with the aim of not altering the “natural” conditions of waterways has been particularly unreasonable and often damaging. The argument of climate change is especially used to oppose both the control of reservoirs and hydropower energy plants without taking into account that climate change is mainly related to water management, storage and protection and to water-related risks. Large and small reservoirs are and will be as indispensable to Africa as they are and will be in ours.
The great opportunities offered by the Inga Project, the consensus of the African Union, the reduced environmental impact and the potential palliation of poverty, should create a strong international collaboration aiming at developing the Project the best way possible, without forgetting the fact that in any case the construction of large infrastructures causes social and environmental issues.
The creation of a large interconnected structure could allow an integrated management of renewable (hydroelectric, solar and wind power) resources with the additional creation of pumped storage plants to limit the use of batteries, which are necessary for solar and wind power. To conclude, for Sub-Saharan countries, the joint management of electricity could be an extraordinary opportunity for the construction of strong national and supranational institutions, which are currently lacking.
Towards a Euro-African energy transition
Europe’s energy transition could be linked to Africa’s one by means of complementary strategies heading towards renewable energy forms. In terms of a reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, wouldn’t our huge funding for wind and photovoltaic power be better spent in Africa for palliating poverty by producing renewable hydroelectric power, which has very low costs for large-scale installations and, which could be transmitted to Europe as well? Or could it be used to produce hydrogen locally for transportation later?
The high solar irradiation per square meter in our country (it is said we are the Arab Emirates of the future!) underlines the importance of photovoltaic energy, which will inevitably cause strong environmental impacts, objections and delays during the transition. Wouldn’t it be better to put panels in the Sahara Desert, which beats us in terms of irradiation and brings electricity or hydrogen to Europe, avoiding disastrous land consumption, reducing any environmental impact, positively influencing the development of the southern shore of the Mediterranean and thus creating the conditions for a reduction of migration flows?
Is it possible to conceive a Euro-African energy transition?
GEIDCO (Global Energy Interconnection Development and Cooperation Organization), Research on Hydropower Development and Delivery in Congo River. Spinger.2020. Research on Hydropower Development and Delivery in Congo River. Spinger.2020.
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M. Shellenberger, L’apocalissepuòattendere, Marsilio,2020.
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DESERTEC: Sustainable Wealth for Every Human on Earth. https://www.desertec.org
Il Caffe Geopolitico: https://ilcaffegeopolitico.net/170697/lafrica-sulla-via-del-nucleare
(*) This article has been published on Nov. 2021 on the Italian Revue Testimonianze (nr.540) https://www.testimonianzeonline.com, which we thank for the authorization and translated by Rebecca Zani