Weak Power Grids in Africa Stunt Economies and Fire Up Tempers

No Comments » August 26th, 2015 posted by // Categories: Energy Development Project



Weak Power Grids in Africa Stunt Economies and Fire Up Tempers


JOHANNESBURG — In the darkened and chilly parking lot of a mall, a suburban family huddling around a shopping cart shared a snack on a Friday evening out. After finding their favorite restaurant closed because of a blackout, Buhle Ngwenya, with her two sons and two nephews, settled for meat pies from one of the few stores open in the mall.

“It’s like death, this load shedding,” Ms. Ngwenya, 45, said, referring to the blackouts imposed by South Africa’s state utility to prevent a collapse of the national electricity grid.

With winter here in South Africa, the worst blackouts in years are plunging residents into darkness in poor townships and wealthy suburbs alike. The cutoffs have dampened the economy, Africa’s second biggest, and are expected to continue for another two to three years.

Despite a decade of strong economic expansion, sub-Saharan Africa is still far behind in its ability to generate something fundamental to its future, electricity, hampering growth and frustrating its ambitions to catch up with the rest of the world.

Despite a decade of strong economic expansion, sub-Saharan Africa is still far behind in its ability to generate something fundamental to its future, electricity, hampering growth and frustrating its ambitions to catch up with the rest of the world.

All of sub-Saharan Africa’s power generating capacity is less than South Korea’s, and a quarter of it is unproductive at any given moment because of the continent’s aging infrastructure. The World Bank estimates that blackouts alone cut the gross domestic products of sub-Saharan countries by 2.1 percent.

The crippling effect was recently on display in Nigeria, which overtook South Africa as the continent’s biggest economy last year.

Nigeria’s electrical grid churns out so little power that the country mostly runs on private generators. So when a fuel shortage struck this spring, a national crisis quickly followed, disrupting cellphone service, temporarily closing bank branches and grounding airplanes.

The power shortages and blackouts have cast a harsh light on elected officials, causing rising anger among voters for whom reliable electricity was supposed to be a dividend of democracy and economic growth.

Experts say that the appointment of politically connected officials with little industry expertise at the South African state utility, Eskom, has led to mismanagement, just as it has at other state-owned enterprises.

“It’s not only a symbol of failure when the lights go off,” said Anton Eberhard, an energy expert and a professor of management at the University of Cape Town. “It’s experienced directly by people. If you’re about to cook or if your child is studying for an exam the next day and your lights go off, people feel this very directly. There is a very concrete and dramatic expression of failure.”

The demand for power in Africa has become a major international issue.China has taken the lead in financing many power projects across the continent — mostly hydroelectric dams, but also solar power plants andwind farms. Private companies from Asia, the United States and Europe are also supplying power to an increasing number of countries.

President Obama, in a visit to Africa two years ago, highlighted the importance of improving the continent’s power supply with a $7 billion initiative called Power Africa. The American government, partly through entities like the Millennium Challenge Corporation, is focusing on improving the electricity infrastructure in several countries, including Ghana, Malawi and Tanzania.

But investments and changes in the electricity sector on the continent have yet to yield significant gains, and experts predict that it will take decades before sub-Saharan Africa enjoys universal access to electricity.

In his inaugural address last month, Nigeria’s new president, Muhammadu Buhari, said that his nation’s attempts to overhaul its electricity sector had “only brought darkness, frustration, misery and resignation among Nigerians.” He singled out unreliable power service as the biggest drag on the economy.

Nigeria’s leaders have promised a stable power supply since the end of military rule in 1999, spending about $20 billion and dismantling the state National Electric Power Authority, better known as N.E.P.A. and widely derided as “Never Expect Power Always.”

Yet the country’s power generating capacity has remained virtually unchanged, about six gigawatts for a country of 170 million. The United States, with 320 million people, has a capacity of more than 1,000 gigawatts.

“Most companies don’t have four hours of power a day from the national grid,” said Akpan H. Ekpo, the director general of the West African Institute for Financial and Economic Management in Lagos, Nigeria’s commercial capital. “If they do, they’re lucky.”

Most of the $20 billion spent to overhaul the power sector is believed to have gone into the pockets of corrupt officials, Mr. Ekpo said.

“With the advent of democracy, we were promised constant power, or at least improved power,” he added. “But much to our surprise, things have only gotten worse. In some middle-class parts of Lagos, people are lucky if they now get 30 minutes of power a day.”

South Africa’s recent history of electrification is more complicated, and it has been the subject of fierce debate as the current blackout crisis has dragged on for several months.

In the last years of apartheid, before a democratic government was elected in 1994, electricity reached only a third of South African households, few of them black.

Under the African National Congress — whose leaders have governed ever since, often promising free electricity and other services as part of the nation’s democracy — 85 percent of households now have electricity, a remarkable accomplishment by any standard.

President Jacob Zuma has forcefully rejected any blame for the energy crisis. The strain on the grid, he said, resulted from the burden of bringing light to millions of black households that lacked power under white-minority rule.

“It is a problem of apartheid, which we are resolving,” he said this year.

But energy experts say that these households, many of them low-income, consume little electricity. Instead, they said, the shortages result from frequent breakdowns at aging plants and, most critically, the delayed construction of two new facilities.

As far back as 1998, a government report warned that without new capacity, the country would face serious power shortages by 2007. A year later, in 2008, South Africa suffered its first rolling blackouts.

South Africa, which has the continent’s only nuclear power plant, has around half of sub-Saharan Africa’s power generating capacity, roughly 44 gigawatts. Still, the power cuts contributed to a recent drop in economic growth and a spike in unemployment to 26.4 percent, the worst level in a dozen years.

The blackouts have affected everyone, including giant gold mining companies, small businesses and individuals.

South Africans are buying up generators, rechargeable lights and gas burners. They plan their days and evenings around blackouts scheduled by the utility. Dominating South Africa’s list of popular app downloads are ones that alert smartphone users to the impending start of a cutoff in their neighborhood or the risk of one as load shedding across the nation increases.

To Ms. Ngwenya, who was sharing meat pies with her family in the mall parking lot, load shedding was not only about electricity. She blamed theAfrican National Congress, the party that liberated South Africa and has steered its course ever since.

“I always supported the A.N.C.,” said Ms. Ngwenya, who grew up in Soweto, a black township outside Johannesburg, but now lives in a wealthy suburb. “However, when it comes to load shedding, I don’t know. It’s not normal coming to a mall and carrying a torch like this man here,” she said, pointing to another consumer shrouded in darkness.

“For me, this is the biggest failure of the A.N.C.,” she added. “We even have a name for it, load shedding. Why don’t they say blackout once and for all?”

In Sandton, a Johannesburg suburb with gated communities and sumptuous malls, Junior Nji, 38, walked out of a well-lit Woolworths in an otherwise dark mall. His wife had just sent him a text message with the news that their neighborhood had gone dark, telling him not to bother getting groceries.

“Load shedding boo,” she wrote, using a term of endearment. “This can’t be life.”

That morning, Mr. Nji said, he had finally decided to buy a diesel generator for his house, and workers had come to prepare for the installation. But Mr. Nji, an architect, was holding off on plans to move to a bigger office because of the extra costs of equipping it with a generator. He had been planning, he said, to hire an additional architect and a draftsman.

He texted his wife: “Then let’s go out somewhere. That Chinese restaurant might just be O.K.”

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