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Affordable electricity

Mobile phone connections are more common than electricity in Sub-Saharan Africa

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How is it that there are more people in Sub-Saharan Africa with a mobile phone connection than any form of electricity? Over 700 million people across the region have a mobile phone, whereas only 450 million Africans have access to reliable electricity.

There are just under 600 million Africans without any form of power whatsoever, and there are now energy startups making a real difference to provide power to those without it. One of these companies is called Bboxx.

Bboxx ‘provides affordable, clean energy to off-grid communities in the developing world‘  and they have the ambition to electrify 20 million people over the world by 2020.

Their business model allows for customers to pay for electrification packages. These are a few dollars each month and provides solar panels, batteries and high-efficiency appliances to create their own off-grid electrical power.

Bboxx can work as an off-grid power source or can be complemented by on-grid base-load power for larger home appliances, such as fridges and televisions.

They are working with national governments across Africa to fit energy packages to households in the most remote parts of the continent, where on-grid power just cannot reach.

The Democratic Republic of Congo has asked Bboxx to supply 2.5 million connections to its off-grid citizens by 2020, and Togo has signed a contract for over 300,000 solar home kits by 2022.

Off-grid power is becoming more common across Sub-Saharan Africa and with companies such as Bboxx leading the way, it is only a matter of time until Africa reaches universal access.

Notwithstanding, off-grid power works very well in remote communities and villages, but Sub-Saharan African governments need to focus on providing cheap, affordable and reliable power by pushing for more public and private investment in coal, gas and oil power projects to set a sustainable base-load for all of their citizens.

Bangladesh is a key example of transforming their electricity output, having quadrupled their supply in the last ten years, meaning another 299 million Bangladeshis now have access to electricity.

It is only a matter of time until Sub-Saharan Africa follows suit.

First super-critical coal power plant almost completed in the Philippines

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The Philippines is about to add another 455MW coal-fired power station to its energy mix, pushing energy access to the remaining 2 million Filipinos that are currently left in the dark.

The San Buenaventura Power Plant in Mauban, Quezon, will be using the newest form of technology to help drive-down carbon emissions from coal power stations, the first of its kind in the Philippines. The 455MW plant has been fitted with supercritical technology, which helps to improve the efficiency of the power plant and reduce its overall carbon emissions.

The project is due to be completed in the next couple of months with an expected start date of producing electricity in early 2019.

As it stands, the World Bank reports that the Philippines currently enjoys an access to energy rate of 91%, meaning that there are still over 2.36 million households without any form of power, preventing businesses from growing, schools from teaching and Filipinos from being safe at night.

In spite of this, it is difficult to power the Philippines as they have over 7,600 islands, preventing on-grid power from reaching the most remote areas. However, the government has ensured that with the reducing costs of renewable energy, it will place a bigger emphasis on setting up off-grid networks for the harder to reach islands, enabling all of its citizens to receive the power they are entitled to.

In 2016, the Duterte government set out a national roadmap from 2016 to 2040 as a plan to reach universal energy access and to develop a sustainable energy system within the Philippines. As it stands, the energy mix of the country accounts for: coal (30%), hydro (20%), geothermal (10%), diesel (20%), natural gas (15%), and wind/solar (5%).

The government has included in its plan an ambition to increase its energy capacity by 19,000MW by 2040.

The Philippines is on a path to create a secure energy mix, but in order to reach the most remote islands, more emphasis will need to be placed on mini-grids supported by renewable technology, but backed up by a strong base load power from the country’s oil, gas and coal power plants.

The introduction of their new supercritical coal power plant next year will help to achieve their energy targets, and to provide electricity to the 2.3 million households currently left in the dark. But how will the government secure the extra 19,000MW needed to power its future?

East Africa is powering its own future

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The World Bank’s recent ‘Progress on Global Energy Goals‘ report has singled out East African countries for their progress and success in energy access. Kenya, Ethiopia and Tanzania have all achieved a year on year 3% increase in energy access from 2010 to 2016.

But, this is not enough to help achieve worldwide universal access by 2030; one of the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals.

As it stands, over 1.1 billion people, 13% of the world’s population, do not have any form of electricity, and on the current trajectory by 2030 an estimated 674 million people will still be without electricity altogether. How can wealthy nations accelerate current projects to ensure we reach the UN goal?

We need to increase the base-load of power. This should come from both fossil fuels and renewable technology, but we should always prioritise on-grid power. This is vital to power the 87% of rural communities that are currently left in the dark.

It is unfair that rural communities are being left behind, with most of them located in Sub-Saharan Africa, and Central and South Asia. How are they expected to run their businesses, power their shops or help to deliver education to their children?

Tanzania is an example of an East African country that is powering itself towards universal access. With help from the African Development Bank (AfDB) over $200 million has been invested in their power sector, helping to connect over 130,000 people and 18,000 businesses to the national grid.

With a significant amount of inward investment into Tanzania, they have set an ambitious target of producing over 10,000MW of electricity by 2025. They currently only have an installed capacity of 1,264MW,  with an energy access rate of just 32.8%.

Investment needs to increase in fossil fuel base-load projects otherwise we will not reach the 2030 target of universal electricity, especially with an increasing population.

Mini-grids will not power Africa alone by 2030

Mini-grids will not power Africa alone by 2030

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Powering Africa and the developing world is a worldwide priority for developed countries and mini-grids are a suitable option for the most remote parts of the continent. However, mini-grids alone will not bring light and prosperity to all Africans.

The Africa Mini-grid Developers Association (AMDA) are in the process of launching a project to help up-scale mini grid projects across Africa. They require over $187 billion between now and 2030 to help reach universal energy access to electricity. In addition to this, the International Energy Agency has said that a separate amount of $391 billion will be required to fund on-grid technology alongside off-grid.

Off-grid technology is important to the future of the continent, but at such an expense it ought to be reconsidered as it will account for 48% of the total needed to invest in Africa to reach universal access by 2030.

Currently 600 million sub-Saharan Africans – two-thirds of the entire population – are without any form of electricity. Both on-grid and off-grid investment is needed but should it be at such an expense in the form of unreliable and costly renewable technology?

There is a general consensus agreed by the United Nations and 193 countries that every nation should reach universal energy access by 2030, but it is unlikely to be achieved in sub-Sahara Africa by this time.

India is an example of a country that has focused on universal energy access by using natural resources, prioritising giving electricity to all of its citizens before looking into alternative renewable technology. This has ensured that India is now on the cusp of achieving 100% access for all of its citizens in the next few years, way before the 2030 ambition.

Countries across Africa need to follow India and focus on promoting all forms of energy, both on and off-grid. However, it is vital that it is done in a way that does not mean a huge expense for relatively little reward in terms of energy generation.

African countries should prioritise the natural resources that each country harnesses and produce enough electricity so that their citizens can cook their dinner, read a book, walk the streets at night, enjoy their education, and so that they can run their own businesses. By improving energy access, you improve the economy of developing countries, and the lives of all of their citizens.

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.

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

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

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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.”

An International Solar Alliance cannot solve energy poverty on its own

An International Solar Alliance cannot solve energy poverty on its own

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Britain has announced it is joining the International Solar Alliance (ISA): a group of countries pledged to increase the use of solar power in the developing world. The ISA plans to help mobilise $1 trillion of investment in affordable solar energy by 2030.

As part of this drive, the UK government has committed to support the development of solar-powered water pumps, giving farmers an alternative to dirty and expensive diesel pumps. The UK has also said it will help provide solar mini-grids to villages that don’t yet have access to mains electricity.

This is welcome news, but Britain should be realistic about what these kinds of power projects can actually achieve. Studies have shown that solar mini-grids have only a limited impact on rural poverty. The ability to charge a phone or power a lightbulb for a few hours a day of course improves people’s quality of life, but it does little to raise their earning power. With current technology, solar can’t yet power industrial development, the hospitals, factories, airports, railways and broadband infrastructure that a country needs to escape poverty.

It’s why, when offered a choice between off-grid solar and a connection to the grid, rural communities generally opt for the grid. Think about it. If you wouldn’t put up with just a few hours of power each day with lights off at 6pm, why should the world’s poorest?

New technology to clean up fossil fuels highlighted in UN report could be the next big American export

New technology to clean up fossil fuels highlighted in UN report could be the next big American export

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Could coal and gas power actually allow for greater use of renewable energy, with lower overall emissions? The idea may seem paradoxical, but that’s the conclusion of a UN working group set up to examine ways of making fossil fuels cleaner.

The “Group of Experts on Cleaner Electricity Production from Fossil Fuels, which operates under the UN’s Economic Commission for Europe secretariat, recently published a report outlining four renewable-fossil fuel technology combinations that would result in substantially more renewable energy being deployed overall. In each case the idea is to combine the big benefits of fossil fuel power – reliability and scale – with the low-emissions advantages of renewables.

The four main options are outlined below:

1. A concentrated solar power/coal power hybrid

Concentrated solar power (CSP) plants have been pioneered by Spain and the US. They use a giant array of mirrors to reflect highly concentrated solar rays at a central tower containing a boiler. Steam from the superheated water then drives a turbine to produce electricity.

The report says that a CSP plant could feed extra heat into the boiler of a coal-fired power station, essentially allowing the coal plant to produce the same amount of power by burning less coal. This means a cut in overall emissions.

2. Coal gasification plants with carbon capture and storage powered by wind

Coal gasification plants convert solid coal into synthetic natural gas, allowing the coal to be burnt at half the emissions of conventional coal power stations. These kinds of plants are ideal for carbon capture and storage (CCS), as it’s much easier to capture CO2 during the gasification stage than the burning stage

CCS can deliver emission reductions of up to 90 percent. However to work, CCS technology requires extra energy – over above the energy that the power station is already producing. This means it has to either generate less power for the same amount of coal – which ruins the economics – or get the extra energy from somewhere else.

According to the report, wind turbines could provide this additional power at no extra cos (since wind is free once the turbines are built) and with zero emissions.

3. Solar-aided carbon capture and storage

Concentrated solar power like wind, could also be used to offset the “energy penalty” incurred by using CCS with coal. A large solar array would collect heat energy which would then power the “stripper” used to chemically strip out the CO2 from coal once it has been burnt.

The deserts of North Africa could be a prime candidate for these systems in future.

4. Using wind and solar to produce hydrogen for coal gasification plants

The biggest disadvantage of wind and solar power is that they cannot produce “dispatchable” electricity, i.e. electricity that is on demand ready for use whenever needed. What they can do however is produce hydrogen, by running an electrical current through water.

According to the report, hydrogen from wind or solar could then be fed into a coal gasification plant. By reducing the amount of coal needed to produce synthetic gas, this would reduce the emissions from such a plant by an estimated 57 percent.

This UN report comes in the wake of America’s announcement that it wants to help lead a “global alliance of countries willing to make fossil fuels cleaner rather than abandoning them,” in the words of US Energy Secretary Rick Perry. The US believes it is immoral to ask developing countries, where millions on people live without energy access to give up on fossil fuels.

All four of the options outlined in the report are being intensively researched in the US, which has funded pilot projects aimed at demonstrating each of the concepts. These technologies could well form the basis of future knowledge-transfers between the members of the cleaner fossil fuels alliance.

There is still a real need for fossil fuel-powered development in the world. By deploying the latest technology, we can secure the benefits of that development and still deliver on climate commitments, making full use of the world’s wind and solar resources.

How the electricity deficit is causing deforestation

How the electricity deficit is causing deforestation

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According to the WHO, around 3 billion people still cook and heat their homes using fires or basic stoves. The resulting indoor pollution has a devastating impact on human health, equivalent to smoking 400 cigarettes an hour.

What’s less often appreciated is the ruinous environmental cost of burning fuel indoors.

In many parts of the developing world, charcoal is the main fuel source for fires and stoves, and the charcoal trade has become a major driver of deforestation.

Take Zambia, a country in which 78 percent of the population still don’t have access to electricity.

Zambia relies almost exclusively on hydro-power, but because of droughts, 8 to 14 hour power cuts have become a part of everyday life. Late last year virtually the whole country was plunged into darkness, not once but twice.

All of this means that charcoal is big business, as even households in electrified urban areas need it to see them through the blackouts. Forestry NGO Forest Trends says that each year Zambia loses 250,000-300,000 hectares of forested land, mainly to charcoal production.

Yet unchecked deforestation has serious environmental consequences, including soil erosion, declining water quality and loss of biodiversity.

No-one should be forced to destroy their health or their local environment, just so they can cook for their families. It’s time that countries like Zambia had an electricity supply that’s reliable, affordable and universal.

One country is doing more on energy access than anyone else

One country is doing more on energy access than anyone else

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Which country or institution has the best record on tackling energy poverty?

It’s not the US, UK or the EU. Nor is it the IMF or the World Bank. In fact, according to a new study from Boston University, the answer is China.

Two Chinese state banks, the China Development Bank and China Import-Export Bank, together lent $25.6 billion to global energy projects last year alone, the study estimates.

This compares to the $22.6 billion that the World Bank made available for energy.

And unlike the World Bank, which restricts financing for fossil fuels in the poorest countries, China has taken a pragmatic approach to access, lending to hydro, oil and coal projects across Africa and Asia. This includes projects like the China-backed Lamu coal plant in Kenya, a huge dam in Ivory Coast, and new gas plants in Nigeria.

The findings will confirm US fears that America has fallen behind China in the battle for energy influence.

The BUILD Act, a piece of legislation currently before Congress, aims to close this gap by making it easier for US development institutions to fund large infrastructure projects overseas. The US has also proposed an international coalition for “cleaner fossil fuels” and invited developing countries to join.