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Why Electricity Matters

Hydropower struggling to provide for poor countries

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Developing countries have long looked to hydropower as the answer to extend electricity access- but global droughts and greater awareness around its environmental impact have damaged its reputation as a reliable and ‘green’ energy source.

Currently, hydropower accounts for around 17 percent of electricity generation- approximately 1,200 GW of installed capacity. 14 out of 17 of the world’s poorest countries are overly dependent on hydropower- relying on it for over half of their electricity needs.

In recent years, a succession of long droughts have severely affected power supply for those relying on hydroelectricity, with notable examples being: Kenya, Malawi and Venezuela. These countries were hit by widespread power cuts that caused havoc for their fledgling industries and public services, with assembly lines grinding to a halt, foodstuffs spoiling in the heat, and surgeons forced to operate in the dark. Scenarios which are all unimaginable for those of us living in the developed world.

There has also been a growing awareness of the negative impact that dams and reservoirs can have on the environment. Flooding land for the reservoir can destroy forests, wildlife habitat and agricultural land. Recent studies show that the stagnant water encourages higher deposits of sediment and nutrients that damages aquatic life. Furthermore, there are cases of local people being resettled to other parts of the country that are unsuitable for their livelihoods.

Hydropower can play an important role in 24/7 electricity generation, as long as it is part of a diverse energy mix that includes conventional energy sources such as gas or coal. Without reliable power, poor countries will continue to be left behind and unable to develop economies and public services.

DFID pledges to spend aid budget more effectively

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The UK’s Department of International Development (DfID) is planning to spend the aid budget more effectively.

DfID’s Penny Mordaunt reiterated the government’s commitment to the 0.7 percent of GDP target, but stressed that the UK taxpayer expected better value for money on foreign aid.

Speaking at Chatham House’s London Conference, the Secretary of State told the crowd that: “we need to ensure that how we are meeting the 0.7 percent is sensible and works for the British public in the long-term, so we are focused on ensuring there is nothing that hinders the most effective use of these funds.”

It comes after DfID faced widespread condemnation for frivolous spending on Western consultants with some receiving the equivalent of £600 a day rather than on frontline assistance, or spending £9 million on an an Ethiopian ‘Spice Girls‘.

For Mordaunt, Britain’s role should be to fund projects which developing countries are unable to do themselves. It is essential to “build capacity” in these countries, such as energy, to ensure that these countries can create their own economic growth. That is why the construction of large-scale power plants are vital for development, with experts asserting that just one would create up to 800,000 jobs. That is why Japan, China and South Korea are all building fossil fuel power stations in some of the world’s poorest countries.

If the UK Government is serious about improving how it spends public money, it must be prepared to use the aid budget on large-scale infrastructure projects. Investing in energy capacity is one of the easiest ways to ensure that developing countries can stand on their two feet without assistance from the UK taxpayer.



Reliable electricity is key to lifting people out of poverty

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Western environmentalists too often overlook the positive impacts that fossil fuels have on society, according to a new piece in the Wall Street Journal. The ability to generate affordable and reliable electricity is essential for industrialisation- which is the cornerstone of economic growth and development.

Today, around 80 percent of the world’s energy needs are met using hydrocarbons. The rapid growth in energy access, particularly in countries such as China and India, has been driven by the use of coal and gas.

Cheap energy helps power labour-saving and life-protecting technologies for the betterment of the world, such as air-conditioning, modern medicine, and transport.

Energy is vital for economic prosperity, with the science writer Ronald Bailey highlighting that it is in “rich democratic countries” that use their natural resources where “the air and water are becoming cleaner, forests are expanding, food is abundant, education is universal, and women’s rights respected.”

Dramatic increases in agricultural output has been driven by the use of fossil fuels. The availability of cheap energy ensures that a smaller proportion of the workforce can produce more food to feed a growing population. This explains why countries with poor electricity access continue to experience hunger and famine.

In contrast, alternative energy sources, such as wind and solar, are too unreliable to support heavy industry and manufacturing which provide well-paid and skilled manufacturing jobs.

According to Wall Street Journal, fossil fuels have had a net-positive effect on society- because it provides dependable and affordable energy access- allowing society to live healthier and more fulfilling lives.

New study: people in Africa want the grid

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A new study from a respected Washington think tank has found that off-grid electricity is failing to meet Africa’s energy needs.

Off-grid systems like rooftop solar panels are often touted by Western environmentalists as the solution to Africa’s chronic power deficit. But few in the West ever ask Africans themselves what they think.

The new study, from the Center for Global Development, does exactly that. It examined public attitudes to energy access in twelve African countries: Benin, DR Congo, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Mozambique, Nigeria, Rwanda, Senegal, Uganda, and Zambia. Key findings include:

  • In all countries surveyed, the majority of off-grid customers want access to grid.
  • Off-grid power is inadequate for most respondents’ energy needs. A significant proportion reported that their off-grid system did not fulfil any of their power needs.
  • People want a grid connection so they can power energy-intensive appliances such as fridges, hot plates, irons and TVs.
  • People on the grid still value access to off-grid systems, but as back-up when the grid goes down rather than a primary energy source.

“Making electricity more accessible, reliable and responsive to African demand across the continent should be a priority, said Dr Todd Moss, an author of the report and a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development.

“Off-grid customers may appreciate the lights and basic appliances like phone chargers that off-grid systems can power, but want to move up the energy ladder toward higher power appliances enabled by a grid connection.”

Reliable electricity is essential to improve people’s living standards and attract industry to these countries. But as this study shows, there are no easy shortcuts when it comes to delivering it.

Kenyan paper slams the West’s fossil fuel hypocrisy

Kenyan paper slams the West’s fossil fuel hypocrisy

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The Kenya Standard has harsh words for Western environmentalists seeking to block Kenya’s plans for a new clean coal power station.

As previously reported, the new coal plant at Lamu on the eastern coast would supply Kenya with 30 percent of its power, and is seen as critical to the country’s plans to modernise and achieve universal electricity coverage. Both the EU and Western environmental groups have condemned the proposal, with the latter accused of hiring local activists to stir up opposition to the plant.

But the Standard has hit back, pointing out the hypocrisy of this stance:

“The lobby groups opposed to the exploitation of the vast deposits of coal with an estimated value of over Sh3.4 trillion [US$34 billion] are largely funded by interest groups in countries that were industrialised using coal power.”

The paper also says that high cost of electricity is a major hurdle for Kenya’s plans to industrialise, with energy costs accounting for a third of manufacturing expenses. And as we and others have repeatedly explained, renewables cannot deliver a manufacturing industry. The blast furnace powered by wind has yet to be invented.

For Western environmentalists sitting in air conditioned offices, the central moral question is this: why should Kenya have to forgo development because the West has spent a century and a half pumping pollution into the air?

Laos backs clean coal partnership with neighbours

Laos backs clean coal partnership with neighbours

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The small southeast nation of Laos has announced it wants to team up with its neighbours to develop clean coal technology.

The announcement came from Dr Daovong Phoneko, the most senior official in the Ministry of Energy, speaking at the 16th ASEAN Forum on Coal Council Meeting in the Lao capital Vientiane.

ASEAN, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, represents a combined population of 640 million people across 10 member states, and is the third biggest investor in coal worldwide after China and India.

The ASEAN countries have been strong advocates for continued use of the fuel, which has helped poorer member states leapfrog up the energy access table in recent years. Indonesia, for example, drove up the rate of energy access from 53 percent of its population in 2000 to 91 percent today, while over the same period Vietnam rose from 76 percent to 98 percent. Almost all of this expansion came from coal plants, which is cheap, locally available, and can provide reliable 24/7 power.

Laos, one of the least developed members of the bloc, still relies largely on hydropower for its energy needs, which has meant a shortfall of electricity during the dry season. At the conference Dr Daovong said that developing the energy sector in Laos would generate much-needed funding for other key development sectors like healthcare and education.

ASEAN’s Clean Coal Action Plan, launched in 2015, is focused on sharing technology and expertise in the fields of clean coal and carbon capture and storage. Like other ASEAN members, Laos views this technology as the only way to power its economy and meet global climate targets.

Coming after Kenya’s announcement of a new clean coal power plant, and news that clean coal is a central part of China’s Belt and Road ambitions, it’s clear that developing countries with large populations to feed are increasingly prepared to defy Western attempts to prohibit the fuel.

Energy access in 2018 – here’s what you need to know

Energy access in 2018 – here’s what you need to know

By | Affordable electricity, Developing Countries | No Comments

Do you have access to reliable electricity in your home? Over a billion people are still living in the dark, forced to make do with dim and dirty fuels for lighting and cooking, placing an intolerable burden on their health, prosperity and quality of life. It’s why the UN has earmarked universal electricity access as one its key Sustainable Development Goals for 2030.

So how is the world getting on?

A new report tracking progress has just been published by a host of global institutions, including the International Energy Agency, the World Bank and the World Health Organisation. It provides an extremely useful statistical overview of what’s working and where the world is falling short.

Here are the key findings:

1. The world is not on track to meet the 2030 target

On current trends, 8 percent of the global population will not have access to electricity by 2030. That means yet another generation growing up in the dark, overwhelmingly in sub-Saharan Africa.

2. Good news in Latin America and India

Three quarters of Latin American countries are on track to achieve universal access by 2020. The region will have achieved near universal access by 2030, with the exception of Haiti which will have 90 percent access rate.

Coal-powered India is the star of the show on energy access, providing electricity to 30 million people a year between 2010 and 2016 – more than any other country in the world.

3. A mixed picture in sub-Saharan Africa

Kenya, Ethiopia and Tanzania have made significant progress, increasing access rates by over 3 percent a year between 2010 and 2016. However other African countries languish far behind, with South Sudan at the bottom of the table on just 9 percent with access to power.

4. But grounds for optimism – we know what works

“The experience of countries that have substantially increased the number of people with electricity in a short space of time holds out real hope that we can reach the billion people who still live without power,” says Riccardo Puliti, Senior Director for Energy and Extractives at the World Bank and one of the authors of the report.

He adds, “We know that with the right policies, a commitment to both grid electrification and off-grid solutions like solar home systems, well-tailored financing structures, and mobilization of the private sector, huge gains can be made in only a few years.”

Investment in Africa’s energy sector is essential to unlock the continent's potential

Investment in Africa’s energy sector is essential to unlock the continent’s potential

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Investment in energy supplies and infrastructure is essential for the development of Africa, which is set to see its population grow to 2 billion by 2050 – over half of the global population.

Africa has incredible economic prospects but a lack of access to electricity is preventing it from reaching its potential.

According to an International Energy Agency (IEA) report, there are close to 600 million people on the continent living without access to electricity and a huge amount living on the edge of poverty.

Secure supplies and infrastructure would provide a significant step in reducing this number, but current levels of investment are too low and are far from the estimated $1.5 trillion needed between now and 2050 to enhance Africa’s power sector.

Funding for power stations and electricity grids are essential in lifting the most vulnerable out of poverty and providing opportunities for African economies to grow.

In an opinion piece for The Financial Times, Nick Butler a Visiting Professor at King’s College London, said: “Access to energy provides the first step in the ladder of development — without heat, light or mobility there is little chance of an escape from poverty.”

If the World Bank and the western world want to regain credibility they must listen to developing countries and lift restrictions on the one thing that we know for sure delivers economic growth: affordable, reliable baseload electricity.

Kenya signs energy deal with America’s General Electric

Kenya signs energy deal with America’s General Electric

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Kenya has signed an agreement with the US engineering giant General Electric to supply its flagship energy project with the latest “ultra-supercritical” clean coal technology.

The proposed 1050MW coal plant at Lamu on the eastern coast would provide Kenya with 30 percent of its power. It is regarded by the government as central to its plans to achieve middle-income country status by the 2030s.

Ultra-supercritical technology is cleaner than traditional coal systems as it operates at much higher rates of efficiency, meaning less coal burnt and fewer emissions.

Kenya has been pursuing a highly pragmatic “all of the above” approach to power generation, including solar, geothermal, hydro and fossil fuels. This has made it one of Africa’s success stories on energy access, boosting the number of people with an electricity connection from just 27 percent in 2013 to 55 percent in 2016. The Lamu coal plant is intended to help Kenya achieve its ambitious goal of 95 percent access by 2020.

The project has the backing of the African Development Bank, which unlike Western development agencies like the World Bank, has argued that African countries should use all the resources at their disposal to bring desperately needed power to their people.

It will also be welcome news in the White House, which is keen to encourage the export of US energy technology to developing nations as part of its strategy of “energy dominance.”

Speaking at Kenya’s Ministry of Energy this week, Francis Njogbu, Managing Director of the project said:

“This is truly a historic moment for Kenya and the East African region as a whole. We are confident that this partnership forged today will go a long way to position Kenya as an Industrial hub in the continent. Kenya has been looking for ways to enhance its generation mix to provide the most efficient, least-cost and reliable power in a sustainable manner; and the technology offered by GE gives us a unique opportunity to achieve this ambition.”

US lagging far behind China in exports of clean fossil technology to energy poor countries

US lagging far behind China in exports of clean fossil technology to energy poor countries

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Last year the US Government announced plans to set up a Clean Fossil Alliance, with the aim of helping poorer countries that need fossil fuels to develop to use those resources in the cleanest possible way. But the US is late to the party. The Chinese government has long been exporting clean coal to the world’s energy poor, as part of its flagship One Belt One Road policy.

One Belt One Road is a massive programme of infrastructure investment spanning 65 countries that China regards as key strategic partners. While Beijing says it merely wants to improve trading links with these countries, many analysts say the real aim of the policy is to create a zone of Chinese economic and political influence to rival that of the US.

Sherry Madera, a former Director at the British embassy in Beijing, is advising China on how it can “green” these Belt and Road projects, which include telecoms, road, rail, and crucially energy. She says the Chinese government views clean coal as a legitimate form of power generation for countries that struggle to provide energy to all their people, a context that richer countries need to understand: “Western countries can get quite worried about the use of coal in any shape or form”, Madera says, “that comes from the right place; renewable energy is now tumbling in price, pulling any of the black stuff out of the ground will end up with some level of pollution. But we need to be alive and harmonised to the fact that these countries along the Belt and Road are in a very different place economically to where we are. Actually having access to energy at all is the primary objective.”

Clean coal in this context means modern, “ultra-supercritical” coal plants that produce lower levels of pollution by operating at higher efficiencies. In a bid to tackle their own air pollution problem, the Chinese have become experts in the technology, with strict emissions standards forcing the closure of older, dirtier models. China’s coal fleet is regarded as significantly cleaner than its US counterpart, which has only one ultra-supercritical plant in the whole country.

It’s estimated that China has invested $44bn in coal projects overseas since 2000. Despite the fact that the fuel is out of fashion (though still widely used) in the West, energy poor countries like Pakistan, Kenya, and Malawi, where millions still lack electricity, have welcomed this investment and the jobs and growth it brings.

This all means that when it comes to delivering cheap, reliable energy to the world’s poorest Washington has a lot of catching up to do with Beijing.