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Euan Mearns

Euan Mearns

"Euan Mearns is a geologist and geochemist. In recent years he was a principal at The Oil Drum, the worlds leading energy blog, until it…

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Neglecting Fossil Fuel Resources Could Be Disastrous For Africa

The UN has suggested that Africa, the poorest continent on Earth, should skip over an industrial revolution built on fossil fuels (FF) and move directly to renewable sources [1]. This has prompted me to take a look at energy in Africa and this occasional series begins with electricity production and consumption in 7 selected countries from South of the Sahara.

One hypothesis I want to examine is that electricity is fundamental to GDP and GDP growth. Without it, individuals cannot create wealth. I was therefore expecting to see that electricity consumption should be correlated with GDP and growth. Per capita GDP and electricity for the 7 selected countries are shown in Figure 1 for 2012. R^2 = 0.81 suggests my hunch was correct but as we shall see the detailed situation is far more complex.

Below the fold is a summary of electricity supply, GDP and population for each of the seven countries since 1980, the year EIA statistics began.


Figure 1 R^2 = 0.81 suggests that GDP and electricity consumption are closely correlated. But take away S Africa and R^2 drops to 0.000. The picture is far more complex. Rwanda, Tanzania, Kenya and S Africa are in line. But Mozambique has the second highest per capita electricity but second lowest per capita GDP. Oil and gas have made Nigeria and Angola comparatively wealthy. That wealth has been created using relatively little metered electricity (offshore platforms will generate their own) and the wealth in the form of electricity has not trickled down to the population.


1. Tanzania, Rwanda, Kenya, Mozambique, Angola and Nigeria have electricity generation built upon hydroelectric power. In Tanzania, Rwanda, Kenya, Mozambique and Angola, 78 percent of electricity comes from hydro and geothermal sources contrary to claims made by the UN [1]. FF are currently of secondary importance.

2. Kenya is the only country with significant geothermal. Geothermal seems to be an under-developed resource along the volcanic East African rift.

3. S Africa alone has an electricity supply built on indigenous coal supplemented by nuclear power. S Africa is by far the wealthiest and most advanced of the 7 nations. Inclusion of S Africa in regional statistics greatly distorts the picture.

4. Hydroelectric generation has faltered in recent decades, I suspect down to naturally shifting rainfall patterns, and has been augmented by fossil fuels (FF).

5. Per capita electricity consumption in 6 of the countries is minuscule compared with S Africa and the OECD. For example compare: Tanzania 114, S Africa 4522, UK 5283 kWh per capita per annum.

6. In all countries, growth in electricity supply has, to some significant extent, been consumed by growth in population. For so long as rapid population growth continues to consume scarce resources it will be difficult for these countries to improve the wealth and health of individuals.

7. Tanzania, Rwanda and Angola have all increased per capita electricity consumption and per capita GDP in recent years. But it is unclear from the statistics alone if lack of electricity hampers economic growth in any country.

8. Mozambique has enormous hydroelectric wealth but chooses to simply export this to S Africa instead of using this power to develop its own people and economy.

9. The socio economic development of many countries was shaped by momentous events in recent years: civil war in Mozambique and Angola, genocide in Rwanda, the ending of apartheid in S Africa.

10. Oil and gas has made Nigeria and Angola comparatively wealthy, but this wealth has not trickled down to the majority in the form of electricity consumption. Kenya, Tanzania and Mozambique are on the threshold of joining the oil and gas age.

11. Provision of electricity in Africa should be based on merit and it is a huge mistake to exclude FF from the mix where, for example, indigenous gas offers the most secure and cheapest option. It is proposed that different models need to be developed for providing electricity in urban and rural areas. Centralised hydro, geothermal, gas or coal generation is the model that works in S Africa and throughout the OECD. The rest of Africa should not be deprived of this opportunity.

12. In rural areas, the development of micro grids based around solar PV and battery storage may prove to be a sensible means of providing a little electricity that may go a long way to improving living standards and health.

13. The biggest killer in Africa is disease – AIDS, respiratory infection, diarrhea, malaria and stroke claim 3 million lives per year. Death from climate change related causes do not figure in the statistics. Disease is borne out of poverty and poverty is in part solved by provision of affordable and reliable electricity supplies.


Electricity statistics are from the U.S. Energy Information Agency (EIA). Population and GDP data are from the United Nations (UN). The EIA reports data from 1980 to 2012, hence all charts span that time period.

The UK

The production and consumption figures in most African countries are so small they can be difficult to get into perspective. Some basic statistics (2012) for the UK are given below for reference purposes.

Population 63.6 million

Electricity production 336 billion kWh

GDP $2.53 trillion

GDP per capita per annum $39,780

Electricity per capita per annum 5283 kWh


For each of the 7 countries, four summary plots have been produced as illustrated in Figure 2. The panels are referred to as TL (top left), TR (top right), BL (bottom left) and BR (bottom right). Electricity consumption, how electricity is generated, GDP and population are the variables I have examined. A general observation is that S Africa dwarfs the other countries in terms of economic development and Nigeria dwarfs the other countries in terms of population.


(Click Image To Enlarge)

Figure 2 Tanzania generated electricity mainly from hydro until 2003 and following that year, fossil fuels (FF) were introduced to the mix (TL). Hydro production was reduced in 2005/6 and again in 2011/12, I suspect due to local drought (see section on drought below). The introduction of FF enabled the Tanzanians to maintain and grow their electricity production at a pace more rapid than population growth (BL) which also enabled per capita GDP to be maintained and to grow. Solar and biomass (for electricity production) are shown since data is reported for recent years, but the quantities are too small to be seen.

Tanzania is the only African country I have visited and I therefore looked at it first. Plotting GDP v electricity (BL) provided a good correlation reinforcing my belief that the two would be intimately linked in all countries. Alas, that was not to be the case.

Finally, the Indian Ocean continental shelf has been open for exploration drilling and several significant gas finds have been made. Tanzania along with neighbouring Kenya and Mozambique are about to join the oil age. Oil and gas sometimes bring wealth and sometimes not and one motivation for this piece of work is to try to understand what defines success and failure. Related: Dividends For Oil Majors No Longer Sacred



(Click Image To Enlarge)

Figure 3 Rwanda is a tiny and poor country. Per capita electricity is less than 30 kWh per annum compared with 5283 kWh per annum in the UK. The shape of the data in Rwanda is dominated by the 1994 genocide when it is estimated that up to 1 million were killed. Events, not all of them bad, are significant socio economic drivers in many African countries.

Like neighbouring Tanzania, the main source of Rwanda’s electricity is hydroelectric power but with FF introduced to the mix in 2004. The TR chart shows GDP fell with the genocide but that electricity production fell several years later beginning around 1999. I don’t know if this is a delayed response to the genocide or if there is another reason such as drought. I suspect the latter since Rwanda’s response, like Tanzania’s was to turn to FF generation (I don’t know what fuel).

Since around 2004 Rwanda’s economy has grown well and electricity consumption with it (BL). This is the time that FF were introduced and enabled this growth to occur. But electricity shows a higher correlation with population (BR) than it does with GDP (BL), which will be a recurring theme.



(Click Image To Enlarge)

Figure 4 Of all countries, Kenya has the most diversified generating mix. The main source is hydro and once again this shows production problems, this time in 2001 and 2009. I suspect drought, but the years are not aligned with Tanzania and Rwanda hence this appears more local than regional. FF were introduced since 1995 and have grown steadily in significance. Notably, Kenya has significant geothermal production, the only country of the 7 selected to have such a source. This whole area is part of the volcanically active East Africa rift valley. Geothermal seems to be an under utilised resource.

Since 1980, Kenya’s electricity production has increased over 4 fold and is highly correlated with population growth (BR). But economic performance has been anaemic with per capita GDP growing from $600 to $700 in the 32 year period (BL). But Kenyans remain more wealthy than Tanzanians and Rwandas.

The bottom line is that Kenya’s efforts to grow electricity supplies have barely kept pace with population growth. It is difficult to say if more electricity was available, that per capita GDP may have grown more rapidly. This is a key question. Is the Kenyan economy in an energy straight jacket brought about in part by population growth? Related: IEA Sees No Oil Price Rebound For Years



(Click Image To Enlarge)

Figure 5 As I work my way through these African states I find that each one has its own unique circumstances that define it today. Energy in Mozambique has two major events. The first is the construction of the Cahora Bassa dam and hydroelectric scheme on the Zambezi river (Africa’s fourth largest artificial lake) in the late 1960s. The second is the civil war from 1977 to 1992, which I’m guessing closed down the hydroelectric plant (TR), although the dates of closure and re-opening are displaced by several years.

Most of the power from Cahora Bassa is exported to S Africa and consequently we do not have data on electricity consumption in Mozambique. The country has a high per capita generation but likely has similar per capita consumption to its northerly neighbours.

Cahora Bassa was built by the Portuguese and, at face value, seems like a worthy foreign aid project. But failing to use the power at home to create comfort and provide the means for leveraging wealth marks this enterprise as a failure.

S Africa


(Click Image To Enlarge)

Figure 6 S Africa is the wealthiest nation on the African continent. The scale on these charts is an order of magnitude different to those that have gone before. GDP per capita and electricity per capita are both about 10 times higher than the east African states. The great event to happen in S Africa in recent decades was the ending of apartheid in 1994. GDP accelerated afterwards as sanctions were lifted (TR).

S Africa is incredibly rich in natural resources – coal, uranium, diamonds, gold and platinum – but ironically no oil or gas. Electricity generation is dominated by coal. Notably S Africa is the only country on the African continent to have nuclear power. It also had nuclear weapons for a while. While hydro, wind, solar and biomass are all listed (TL), these are merely window dressing. Electricity in Africa’s most successful nation is founded on FF.

While S Africa is the most successful nation in Africa, it has not made much progress since 1980 either. Per capita GDP and electricity consumption are in a knot (BL). Once again we see the growth in electricity supply has been swallowed by population growth (BL). It is also worth noting that since 2007, electricity supply has been static (TL&TR) leading to a decline in per capita electricity but GDP has continued to grow. It would be interesting to know the reasons behind stagnation in electricity supply growth and I wonder if pressure from the UN to cut CO2 emissions may lie behind this.



(Click Image To Enlarge)

Figure 7 Angola provides a taste of what I expected / hoped to see in many countries. GDP and electricity growth are tightly correlated (TR). In keeping with most of these African states, hydroelectric provides the backbone of electricity generation, supplemented by FF. GDP and electricity consumption took off in Angola in 2002. I wondered if this may have been down to rising oil prices – Angola is a significant exporter – but find that the Civil War that began in 1975 ended in 2002. Like Mozambique, the end of Portuguese rule led to conflict. The sharp rise in GDP is likely down to a combination of oil price and peace.

Oil rich Angola has the second highest per capita GDP in this group of countries but per capita electricity is not significantly higher than E African peers. The relatively low per capita electricity consumption also shows that it is not implicated in generating the high GDP. The high GDP is a consequence of offshore oil production where operators will generate their own power from associated gas production. At least Angola has used some of its wealth to repair the hydro dams and improve the lot of its citizens from a lowly base level. Related: Can Russia Withstand Saudi Onslaught In The European Oil Market?



(Click Image To Enlarge)

Figure 8 The charts for Nigeria have much in common with Angola, especially the dog leg in GDP in 2002, which I believe must be down to rising oil price. In keeping with most of the countries in this post, Nigeria has significant hydroelectric power augmented by FF, which I assume in the case of Nigeria is natural gas or oil. Hydro production has fallen in recent years, once again a sign of local drought?

Oil rich Nigeria should be wealthy, but it’s not. Per capita electricity in 2012 (BL) was a little over 150 kWh / annum; lower than Kenya. In keeping with most of these countries, growth in electricity supply has been consumed by population growth (BR), depriving individuals of higher living standards.

Drought in East Africa


One thing all the countries in this study have in common is rapidly growing populations, which place strain on food, water and energy resources. Each of the countries also have a certain dependency on hydroelectric power that exposes them to the vagaries of climate change. There is no systematic variation in the data to suggest that regional drought has impacted generation, but I was prompted to do a search that threw up this interesting Nature paper. Verschuren et al (2000); Rainfall and drought in equatorial east Africa during the past 1,100 years:

Here we present a decade-scale reconstruction of rainfall and drought in equatorial east Africa over the past 1,100 years, based on lake-level and salinity fluctuations of Lake Naivasha (Kenya) inferred from three different palaeolimnological proxies: sediment stratigraphy and the species compositions of fossil diatom and midge assemblages. Our data indicate that, over the past millennium, equatorial east Africa has alternated between contrasting climate conditions, with significantly drier climate than today during the ‘Medieval Warm Period’ (approx ad 1000–1270) and a relatively wet climate during the ‘Little Ice Age’ (approx ad 1270–1850) which was interrupted by three prolonged dry episodes. We also find strong chronological links between the reconstructed history of natural long-term rainfall variation and the pre-colonial cultural history of east Africa, highlighting the importance of a detailed knowledge of natural long-term rainfall fluctuations for sustainable socio-economic development.

It is refreshing to read some proper science from years gone by. A more recent contribution is predictable in finding other causes: Anthropogenic warming in the west Pacific likely contributed to the 2014 drought in East Africa.


Sub-Saharan African nations’ economies tend to be reliant upon agriculture, natural resources and to a lesser extent tourism. The gulf between their wealth and our wealth is immense. See for example the per capita electricity figures below (kWh / annum):

  • Tanzania 114
  • S Africa 4522
  • UK 5283

S Africa alone has a standard approaching that of the OECD and including S Africa in average statistics is highly misleading for the region as a whole. A plot of population v GDP reveals an interesting framework. There are two giants. S Africa has a giant economy and Nigeria a giant population (Figure 9). The trend in Nigeria steepens in 2002, most likely due to the rise in oil price. It is cause for concern to note that Tanzania, Rwanda, Kenya and Mozambique are all on trend with pre-2002 Nigeria. In other words they are locked into a population growth, low productivity regime. Angola alone is reaching out towards the S African trend based primarily upon oil wealth. Tanzania, Kenya and Mozambique have great oil and gas prospects and may soon join the oil and gas age. But the real challenge is to convert this energy wealth into prosperity for all the population with diversified economies.


Figure 9 Trends in population and GDP for individual countries are a means of illustrating and comparing per capita earnings.

Energy and electricity consumption is a symbol of economic success and Africans should therefore be encouraged to consume more. But it is, of course, pointless to consume for the sake of it and consumption growth should be driven by demand stimulated by economic activity. The situation that needs to be avoided is one where economic activity is stifled through a lack of electricity, which I dare say may be the case today. Availability for all should be the mantra of the UN. Amongst other things, electricity enables sanitation of water supplies, refrigeration and the operation of hygienic health care.


Figure 10 African nations need to aspire to become like S Africa while they are locked in a trend reminiscent of Nigeria.

A plot of population v electricity consumption shows that Tanzania, Rwanda, Kenya, Angola and Nigeria are all on the same trend. This is a trend that defines low per capita consumption and poverty. Mozambique alone reaches out to S Africa, but as described above this is down to a single large hydro scheme and exporting a large surplus of electricity to S Africa rather than using the windfall to generate prosperity in Mozambique.

Africa needs more electricity and the question therefore is where that electricity should come from? But not only does Africa need more electricity but supply growth needs to be much higher than population growth if it is to make any difference to the wellbeing of individuals.

It is important to recognise that the solution for urban areas may be quite different to rural areas. Expanding hydroelectric power where possible often sounds like a good idea. But the locations of waterfalls and cities are not often aligned creating a need for long transmission lines, which along with building dams and power stations is capital intensive and time consuming to complete. Africans need electricity now, not just in 15 years’ time.

Besides hydro, it is delusional to believe that urban Africa may prosper on expensive and unreliable wind and solar power. You just have to look at what the success of S Africa is built upon. It is called coal. Tanzania, Kenya and Mozambique will shortly have indigenous supplies of natural gas and should use this opportunity to build gas fired power stations and grids connecting the urban centres. The impact of doing so on Earth’s climate will be zero if for no other reason than the fact that others will burn their gas if they don’t.

A different solution may be appropriate in rural areas where it may be impractical to consider building grids between dispersed villages and towns. It is here that solar PV backed by battery storage may well have an important niche role. A little electricity may go a long way in an African village providing opportunities for telecommunications and light. A little more may provide opportunities for cooking, refrigeration, clean water and sanitation.

The UN is failing Africa with its preoccupation with climate change and renewable energy. Climate related mortality does not figure in sub-Saharan Africa today. Disease and illness kills 3 million / year (Figure 11). This is linked to poverty and the best way to address this is through providing cheap and reliable electricity. The choice of where that electricity comes from should be based on science, engineering, economics and merit and not upon dogma.


Figure 11 The 5 main causes of mortality in sub-Saharan Africa. From FACTSHEET: The leading causes of death in Africa

[1] The UN 2014: Africa Clean Energy Corridor Action Statement and Action Plan

The Africa Clean Energy Corridor initiative aims to substantially increase deployment of renewable energy in Africa, reducing carbon emissions and dependence on imported fossil fuels, leading to a more sustainable and climate resilient economic growth. Four-fifths of all electricity in Eastern and Southern Africa is currently generated from carbon-intensive fossil fuels such as natural gas, oil or coal. Regional demand for electricity is expected to more than double in the next quarter century. The Africa Clean Energy Corridor aims to meet half of total electricity demand from clean, indigenous, cost-effective renewable resources by 2030, thereby reducing carbon dioxide emissions to a more sustainable level.


Capacity building has been organized to help operate African power grids with higher shares of renewable electricity generation by combining variable wind and solar with baseload hydro and geothermal resources. With the input from various stakeholders, a needs-based practitioners’ guide is being prepared on strategies for integrating variable renewables on these grids while retaining cost-effective and reliable service.

My thoughts:

1. In Tanzania, Rwanda, Kenya, Mozambique and Angola, 78 percent of electricity comes from hydro and geothermal sources, which is totally at odds with this UN statement.

2. Many African countries will soon have their own gas and will not have to import FF.

3. Africa’s carbon emissions outside of S Africa are already at rock bottom and it is preposterous to suggest they should be reduced in the electricity generation sector.

4. Merely doubling electricity over 25 years is unlikely to keep pace with population growth and setting such a low and unambitious target will condemn Africa to poverty.

5. If you have dispatchable hydro and geothermal, why on Earth burden this with intermittent wind and solar unless this is to provide off grid power to rural areas?

By Euan Mearns

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