Smart and Just Grids: Opportunities for sub-Saharan Africa

By Morgan Bazilian, Special Advisor to the Director-General of UNIDO

In 2009, an estimated 585 million people had no access to electricity in sub-Saharan Africa. Unlike many other regions of the world, under current assumptions, that figure is expected to rise significantly by 2030 to about 652 million – an unsustainable and unacceptable situation. While national governments and regional organizations have identified the urgent need for accelerated electrification rates, responding to this need will require innovative and effective energy policies. The way future power systems are planned, designed, constructed, financed and operated will have a significant impact on how effectively these aspirations are delivered.

The United Nations (UN) Secretary-General’s Advisory Group on Energy and Climate Change (AGECC) has proposed a bold target of assuring universal access to reliable, affordable and sustainable modern energy services by 2030 (AGECC 2010). To meet this goal, massive electricity infrastructure1 development will be required in the short and medium term. Efficiency improvements, demand management, optimal generation planning, improved grid operation and increased electricity trade across sub-Saharan African countries will be essential for minimizing the volume of investments needed (UN-Energy Africa 2008). We propose that specific elements of current and emerging smart grid2 concepts, systems and technologies may make an important contribution to improving equitable and just access to electricity services in sub-Saharan Africa (Bazilian, Sagar, et al. 2010). We argue that these smart grid advances may enable sub-Saharan African countries to leapfrog elements of traditional power systems in terms of both technology and regulation. This could accelerate national and regional electrification timeframes, improving service delivery, minimizing costs and reducing environmental impact.

Expanding access to national electricity grids often constitutes the cheapest option for providing services. However, decentralized power, often based on renewable energy sources, is likely to be an important component of any significant expansion in electricity access, especially for rural and remote areas (Deichmann et al. 2010). Both system types can benefit from aspects of smart grid technologies3.

Employing a subset of the advances in power systems provided by smart grids may enable sub-Saharan African countries to leapfrog traditional power systems to reach more effective solutions. This could accelerate national and regional electrification timeframes, while improving service and minimising costs and environmental impact. We introduce the term “Just Grids” to reflect the need for power systems to contribute towards equitable and inclusive global economic and social development. Given the specific needs of sub-Saharan Africa, it is obvious that a smart grid approach for this region cannot simply be a copy of practices in industrialized countries – the starting point, challenges and opportunities are too different.

We broadly define the concept of Smart and Just Grids for sub-Saharan Africa as one that embraces all measures in support of immediate and future integration of advanced two-way communication, automation and control technologies into local, national or regional electricity infrastructure. The concept aims to optimize grid systems and their operation, integrate high levels of renewable energy penetration, and improve the reliability and efficiency of electricity supply. In addition to being smart, socially just4 power systems are required in sub-Saharan Africa in order to guarantee access to modern energy services without marginalizing the poor5.
In the future, Smart and Just Grids for sub-Saharan Africa could provide similar functionality to smart grids in industrialized countries at full deployment, even though they are likely to follow a different pathway and timeframe. The diversity of the electrification status in sub-Saharan Africa6,7 means that lessons learned from other regions may be directly applied in certain areas, while tailored solutions will be required for others. Constraints such as: a lack of good governance, limited investment capital, largely inadequate infrastructure, and a gap in well trained power sector personnel are likely stifling innovative practices that could already be occurring organically8. While the costs for massively upgrading existing grids to smart grids may not be justifiable, the business case when investing in new infrastructure is significantly better, offering significant potential opportunities for sub-Saharan Africa. It will therefore be essential to prioritise specific smart solutions based on clearly defined functionalities that help reduce costs, promote economic growth and improve long-term sustainability.

The massive electricity infrastructure requirements in sub-Saharan Africa offer a unique opportunity to learn from grid developments in industrialized countries and move forward without necessarily repeating all previous development stages. We should take advantage of this significant opportunity to ensure that sub-Saharan Africa’s future grid is designed in a way that is both smart and just.

View the full paper Smart and Just Grids: Opportunities for sub”Saharan Africa

Notes (references in full paper):
1. We use the term electricity infrastructure or power systems to encompass the entirety of the system, from generation through transmission and distribution to customer services and associated operations.
2. It remains the case that modern power system planning and operational tools and systems currently employed in the OECD also have much to offer developing countries.
3. We do not make a judgement on the issue of one type as superior to another, but rather consider how modern power system tools can benefit both as well as, in some cases, facilitate the connection of one into the other.
4. According to Zajda, Majhanovich, and Rust (2006), social justice generally refers to, “an egalitarian society that is based on the principles of equality and solidarity, that understands and values human rights, and that recognizes the dignity of every human being”.
5. Similarly, UNEP (2008) calls for a just transition to a sustainable, low carbon economy to ensure that social aspects are equitably integrated into economic and environmental considerations, and that emerging opportunities are adequately shared among stakeholders.
6. Wide variations in the energy sector can be demonstrated by per capita energy consumption, which varies from some 20 kgoe in Burundi to 860 kgoe in Zimbabwe, correlating well with respective GNP per capita (Karekezi 2002).
7. This diversity is comparable to India, which may offer a significant potential to learn from its smart grid developments. Refer to Balijepalli, Khaparde, and Gupta (2009) and Balijepalli et al. (2010) for a focus on India’s related endeavors.
8. For example, the electrification of New York started with Thomas Edison’s effort to develop a successful business, covering the complete system of electric generation, distribution and appliances (the light bulb) (Brooks, Milford, and Schumacher 2004; ConEdison 2010).