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Interview: Karel Cornelissen, CEO of Energy Partners on Africa’s energy crisis

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Karel Cornelissen, CEO of Energy Partners
Karel Cornelissen, CEO of Energy Partners

Sub-Saharan Africa has the lowest electrification rate in the world – and is in dire need of a solution to its growing electrification problem.

It is estimated that around 600 million people are currently living in this region without access to electricity, and, while its population is rapidly growing, the expansion of electrical infrastructure is not progressing at a fast enough pace.

Research by the World Bank indicates that the continent currently requires an estimated $100 billion in infrastructure investment in order to close this gap.  Additionally, a survey by Grow Africa among companies already invested in Africa, has shown that dissatisfaction with the quality of physical infrastructure, including stable electricity supply, was one of the most prominent challenges hampering further investment in other areas of the continent’s economy.

IT News Africa had a chat with Karel Cornelissen, CEO of Energy Partners who unpacked the current electrification challenges facing Africa and the alternative solutions available to rectify Africa’s growing electrification problem.

Could you highlight some of the electrification challenges facing Africa?

Various projects to bring big scale electrification to the continent have largely failed due to the infrastructure challenges faced in Africa. Investment in large-scale generation projects is still far from ideal and the distances between power plants and the communities that require a grid connection make transmission incredibly challenging.

Furthermore, electrical losses along lengthy transmission lines remain a significant challenge. In South Africa alone, the total distribution losses amount to an estimated 8.4%, meaning that nearly a tenth of the electricity being generated is wasted on transmission. In the rest of Africa, this percentage is even higher.

What are some alternative solutions available to rectify Africa’s growing electrification problem?

Micro-grids – supported by renewable solutions – have the potential to become the building blocks of a rapidly growing power grid in areas where electrical demand has not yet reached the critical mass required for large-scale generation. In addition, new generation facilities of any scale, effectively fast tracks further economic development, which again facilitates more investment in a region.

Briefly, how can micro-grids be a solution to Africa’s energy crisis?

Micro-grids are already viewed as an ideal solution to bring power to regions without access in a quick and cost-effective way. Renewable energy such as solar and wind also provides the one advantage that will make these micro-grids sustainable as permanent solutions (instead of as temporary fixes): They are considerably more cost effective to scale down, meaning that small-scale generation can still be economically viable.

What needs to be done in order to implement these solutions?

Expanding the use of micro-grids on the continent will depend greatly on new partnerships being struck between Governments and the private sector. There are private sector companies with the capabilities and capacity required to build this type of infrastructure, and it is up to the public sector on the continent to devise better funding models and incentives that will attract these types of businesses.

What emerging technologies can play a role in being a solution to Africa’s energy crisis? If so, how?

Wireless monitoring and communication technology is becoming increasingly important to assist with the monitoring and maintenance of power grids. This is especially true for micro-grids in Africa, since they are usually situated in remote regions, and a service provider may require the ability to monitor and control multiple sites. Along with this, energy storage technology such as batteries will become increasingly viable for use in Africa, as their manufacturing costs also decrease over the coming years.

By Neo Sesinye
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