Devolvement of Energy Supply
Household Level Approach is Cheaper and More Effective
By: Zephaniah Kivungi

The pursuit of universal access to clean energy has seen Sub-Saharan countries adopt rural electrification strategies. Big proportions of the resources are directed to these grid expansion drives. The rate of clean energy access is not increasing much owing to expanding economies, funding constraints and rapidly increasing populations. Adopting distributed energy strategies, where each household takes charge of its own energy needs, would be more impactful and will turn out cheaper. This article presents biogas as an alternative to grid expansion.

Energy and Development

Energy fuels growth and development. The more a country’s economy grows, the more energy it requires; the more energy is available, the more the economy grows. Millions of people in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) still live in the dark, literally. According to World Bank and International Energy Agency (IEA), over 80% of SSA populations rely on biomass (mainly wood and charcoal) for fuel. It partly explains why forest cover has alarmingly deteriorated in the last 60years. Kitchens remain laden with smoke and soot. The search for firewood characterises daily lives especially in rural areas. It takes much effort and also good parts of the day especially for women and children.

It is common for households to cook only once a day to spare this scarce resource- firewood. Smoky and messy as dried dung, maize cobs and firewood may be, it is a precious resource.

You can easily conclude that governments are not doing enough. And that’s fine. You can say insufficient resources are allocated to energy supply leading to perennial insufficiency in energy supply and access. And that’s fine too, but, not entirely true.

Energy Budgets

Before making conclusions, let us go over some numbers. Globally, investment in energy in 2013 topped US$1. 6 trillion of which US$1 trillion (62. 5%) went to extraction and development of fossil fuels (coal, oil and gas) systems. The trend is, by 2035, US$48 trillion will be invested; US$40 trillion of it to supply, US$8 trillion to energy efficiency. But the breakdown of the US$40 trillion reveals more. US$23 trillion will go to fossil fuels, US$10 trillion (25%) to electricity generation and US$7 trillion (17. 5%) to distribution and transmission of that electricity.

Effectively, electricity infrastructure takes up a staggering 42. 5% of all energy supply investments! That is where the challenge really is. In Africa, where the drive for rural electrification is accelerating, the budget proportions are definitely higher. Further, the IEA notes that under half of these investments tackle demand growth. Another major challenge right there – demand continues to grow but we are meeting it at a rate slower than growth. Populations in SSA are significantly growing. Can we conclude that all we will ever do, at this rate, is play catch up?

Priorities: Must we have Grid Electricity?

The truth is that electricity is not as vital for improving livelihoods as we always want to believe. A family whose economic activity is fishing is more concerned about keeping their fish fresh than in cooking. A horticultural one would rather get their fresh produce to market – far and near- fresh, than light their home. Cereal producers across SSA keep incurring losses when their harvests rot because of insufficiently drying. Those in arid and semi-arid areas say, “If only we had a means to pump water”.

It is important to have electricity at home. It is trendy to electrify slum areas. Electricity is clean when used for cooking, cooling, and heating. It’s easy to use. However, we must ask hard questions. How many years will it take to attain universal access to clean energy in SSA if electricity is our primary strategy? What does energy access really mean- is it just having power lines outside the house? Must we have electricity to claim access to clean energy? Again, why are forests decreasing even with increasing electrification? Has anyone quantified the impacts- social and economic- of rural electrification which most, if not all, SSA governments are pushing fervently?

One more question: what if we shifted, say, half of all the investment to household supply? One thing is clear, commercial consumers take up most of the supply. New power plants supply existing big consumers. Additionally, expanding economies maintains the status quo; that of bigger energy consumers snapping all new capacity. For example, Kenya’s top Energy Policy priority is increasing installed generation capacity by 5,000MWe in 40months. Granted, this is on track; one year down the line, the Ministry is seeking industrial consumers (manufacturers) to take up the new capacity. See the cycle?

Alternatives: Radical Paradigm Shift

This explains why 50+years later, we seem to have had a constant level of electrification. Therefore, governments are doing a lot, perhaps enough. But the paradigm needs to shift; drastically.

An average household-rural or urban- would hardly cook with electricity even if they had it. Cooking fuel will continue being charcoal (even in cities) and firewood despite increased electrification. That being true, then it is also true that introducing alternative cooking fuel will directly save forests and also reduce the pressure (and apparent urgency) to electrify all villages in SSA.

Here is one potent alternative: biogas. It is not a new concept but receives little government support in the quest for universal energy access. Biogas burns without smoke, just like liquefied petroleum gas (LPG). Biogas is used for cooking, 2 hours of which saves 6 kg of firewood. It is used for lighting, just like electricity. It comes from waste material- no cost like kerosene (or charcoal). Did we say it is much cleaner – both to the environment and to the user?

Striking a Balance

Biogas will spare women and children the hours spent looking for fuel wood. Biogas would save the millions of African women who experience respiratory complications due to exposure to smoke in kitchens.  To make biogas mainstay, we need to talk about it- in institutions and in the media. Researchers and policy makers need to give this self-sustaining strategy more attention. The governments will make more progress by allocating resources and promoting biogas systems- large and small. Development organizations will have greater impacts pulling households out of darkness and extinguishing the smoke clouds in domestic kitchens. There are no transmission or maintenance costs. What’s more, the waste from the system is a potent organic fertiliser. The grid has its place but a fair balance is required. That is sustainability in practice.