Education

Darkness at Noon

 By Rob Davies

In Zambia, for months now, there has been no electricity for around eight hours a day and sometimes more. While measures to boost supply are in the works, none are due to bear fruit for many months yet. Not only. Rolling blackouts (in Zambia and Tanzania) signal the need for greater energy diversity in Africa to match the inevitable increases in demand caused by population growth and economic development. One potential solution lies in the embryonic East African natural gas boom that is taking shape after discoveries between 2010 and 2012 or enjoys nascent success with small-scale solar projects (such as Uganda and Kenya), from photovoltaic panels that supply a whole village to compact units that allow a small local shop to run a mobile payments system and a few lights…

The atmosphere was building in Lusaka’s National Heroes Stadium, packed to the rafters for a football match between the home team Zambia and Gabon. President Edgar Lungu was in attendance alongside thousands of football-mad Zambians, all eager to see how their beloved ‘Chipolopolo’ – the nickname for the national team – would fare.

The anticipation was reaching fever pitch when, without any warning, the stadium was plunged into darkness in a citywide power outage. Eventually the game got underway but just ten minutes later, the lights went out again. The crowd began to boo.

Depending on which of Zambia’s partisan newspapers reported the incident, they were either booing President Lungu or the national power company Zesco. Either way, the palpable frustration reflected the anger that ordinary Zambians have been feeling about the rolling blackouts impeding the development of this impoverished southern African country.

For months now, there has been no electricity for around eight hours a day and sometimes more. While measures to boost supply are in the works, none are due to bear fruit for many months yet.

The source of the problem is Lake Kariba, the largest man-made reservoir in the world, which runs along the border with Zimbabwe and supplies both countries with hydroelectric power via the Kariba Dam.

Nearly all of Zambia’s electricity comes from hydropower, with just three dams (including Kariba) supplying more than 90 percent of it. But drought has seen the Lake dwindle to just 40 percent of its previous levels, leaving Zambia with a deficit of some 560MW, about one quarter of the country’s entire power generation capacity.

The shortfall has forced Zesco to implement load-shedding on a countrywide basis. In some regions, there is a schedule that determines when the power will go out. In other regions it is less predictable. That makes life all the harder for poor families, who cannot plan properly for when to refrigerate and cook food, boil water or use electrical appliances.

It also casts a shadow over Zambia’s biggest source of income, the power-hungry copper mining industry.

In Europe and the US, Africa's power problems should not go unnoticed. The lesson to draw from power shortages are the same all over the world. Rely too much on one source of energy and you may soon find yourself living in the dark

Over the border in Tanzania, the problem is less acute but still keenly felt. Tanzania relies on water for 35 percent of its electricity but was recently forced to close all of its hydropower plants due to lack of rain. Water shortages in this part of the world do not seem to be a one-off. Locals complain that the rains have been coming later and later over the last few years, the apparent result of climate change.

According to one Red Cross report, Zambia in particular can expect the pattern of rainfall to shift, meaning more intense rainfall but longer dry periods in between. What’s increasingly clear is that countries like Tanzania and Zambia need to diversify their energy supply to match the inevitable increases in demand caused by population growth and economic development.

The usual solution – running diesel generators during blackouts – is expensive, both economically and ecologically. Nor does nuclear power seem to be anywhere in Africa’s near-term future.

One potential solution lies in the embryonic East African natural gas boom that is taking shape after discoveries between 2010 and 2012. Gas burns cleaner than coal and, provided it is managed properly, represents a relatively cheap and reliable source of energy.

Countries such as Uganda and Kenya have also enjoyed nascent success with small-scale solar projects, from photovoltaic panels that supply a whole village to compact units that allow a small local shop to run a mobile payments system and a few lights.

At present, the limitations on solar’s output mean these projects are largely about connecting people who live off-grid. But with hydropower becoming a less reliable source, a larger roll-out of solar projects could be part of a broader energy solution.

In Europe and the US, Africa’s power problems should not go unnoticed. Energy diversification is just as important in the developed world, where the balance between power supply and demand is becoming increasingly tight.

The lesson to draw from power shortages are the same all over the world. Rely too much on one source of energy and you may soon find yourself living in the dark.

about the author
Rob Davies
Business, travel and news for Daily Mail, Mail on Sunday, City AM, Daily Telegraph, The Observer, Spears, Jewish Chronicle among others. https://robdavies.contently.com/