Analysis & Opinions - Business Daily

Fuelling a Sustainable Economy

| August 23, 2007

In response to long periods of neglect, African countries are starting to invest in new energy production facilities. But such investments are likely to focus largely on producing energy rather than contributing to the continent’s efforts to build local energy technology capabilities.

Kenya, for example, is renewing its investment geothermal energy production. A recent contract between the Kenya Electricity Generating Company (KenGen) with Japan’s Mitsubishi Corporation and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries will bring 35 megawatts (MW) of geothermal power on stream by 2009.

The challenge is immense. Kenya’s electricity generating capacity stands at 1,045 MW. But peak demand rose from 980 MW to 1,082 MW in the first six months of this year.

 The gap between electricity supply and demand is projected to widen as Kenya endeavours to provide adequate basic needs such as nutrition, provide clean water and health care, and expanding its manufacturing base.

Meeting such needs will require significant investments in energy infrastructure. Past efforts in decentralized efforts such as improved wood stoves can add to the energy mix.

 But their role will always not be a substitute for critical energy infrastructure needed to support agriculture, industry and household needs.

In fact, much of the improvement needed in fields such as health care will depend on providing cheap electricity to the majority of the population. Africa accounts for only about five per cent of world primary energy demand. 

Only about 36 per cent of the population, mostly in urban areas, has access to electricity. Nearly 80 per cent of Africa’s rural population lacks access to electricity, which limits the growth of rural industries. 

Much of the policy discussion on Africa’s energy needs focuses on trends in supply and demand and their environmental implications such as carbon sequestration As a result, importance of technological innovation associated with energy production and use is often ignored.

Africa’s geothermal potential is a case in point. Using existing technology, Eastern Africa (Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, and Zambia) can generate over 2,500 MW of electricity from geothermal energy (compared to the global output of 8,100 MW). But what is important is building local capabilities in a wide range of fields associated with utilizing this resource.

Geothermal energy production involves building competence in a diversity of fields including biology, chemistry, ecology, electronics, electric engineering, geology, hydrology, and physics.

The expertise needed to develop geothermal energy is transferable to other sectors of the economy.  Building geothermal energy capacity can therefore go hand in hand with efforts to meet longer term development goals.

Equally important are is the development of expertise in the management of emissions of carbon dioxide, nitric acid and sulfur can be transferred to other sectors of the economy. 

But none of these technological benefits will be realised unless African governments design policies that focus on the use of science, technology and innovation to promote long-term economic growth. 

The implementation of the agreement between Kenya and Japan provides a strategic starting point for such a regional centre of technological excellence. Other countries will follow their lead.

Prof. Juma teaches at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government where he directly the Science, Technology, and Globalization Project.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Juma, Calestous.“Fuelling a Sustainable Economy.” Business Daily, August 23, 2007.

The Author

Calestous Juma