Before the oil crisis in the 1970’s the consumption of liquid fossil fuels increased in SADC counties due to the fact oils were inelastic to demand and considered an infinite resource. These countries thus developed along fossil fuel energy sources making them vulnerable in the oil crisis.

As the price of oil increased the West moved toward alternative power sources such as gas, coal and nuclear while African countries were unable to mirror this change on as large a scale as they  developed. Major power stations in the SADC region only supply urban areas leaving most of the rural community without power from the national grid. Transmission, distribution, sub-stations and transformers are costly infrastructure with an estimated cost of approximately R1,000,000 per kilometre. This has hampered rural electrification strategies in the SADC and other regions in Sub–Saharan Africa.

As a result of the price of liquid fuels rising, rural communities almost completely rely on wood or charcoal as an energy source as the electrification rates for these areas is almost non-existent. Countries such as Zambia, Uganda, Mozambique and Tanzania have a rural electrification rate of less than 5%.

Governments from these countries have developed rural electrification strategies but they have proved to be ineffective in terms of implementation. These energy problems have caused severe sustainability issues in these countries.

There are three pillars which form the coherent term sustainability. These pillars are environment, social and economic. Each of these pillars have various aspects which have been hampered by infective power grids and limited access to clean energy. These will be discussed below.

Environment

As seen above there are certain countries which have rural electrification rates of less than 5% and urban electrification rates of less than 50%. This has created a growing charcoal business to provide charcoal briquettes which is made by compressing and slow heating of wood.

Immediate environmental effects include:

  • Deforestation (Africa has twice the global average)
  • Lower water table
  • Soil erosion and infertile land
  • Air pollutants (NOx and SOx) and greenhouse gases (CO2, CH4 and N2O)
  • Biodiversity loss

Social

There are several social issues caused from an ineffective national grid. With no power the youth of a country will struggle to develop and grow to a level which would be on par with industrialised countries. This is largely due to developing countries being stuck well behind the technically advancing world.

Immediate social issues from limited power for the SADC countries youth include:

  • No lights to study (if the students have textbooks)
  • No computers (loss of skills)
  • No internet (enormous loss in learning)
  • Malnutrition from limited cooking equipment, bad foods and staple diets

Immediate health issues from limited power include:

  • Limited water (hot or cold) for cleaning (water cannot be pumped to villages or heated easily)
  • Lung infections and asphyxiation (burning coal and wood indoors)
  • Medicines cannot be stored at recommended temperatures (no cooling or HVAC)
  • Specialised medical equipment cannot be utilised.

The simplest of medical procedures which could save a person’s life cannot be completed if there is no power. Diesel generators may be available but these are typically only used for a couple hours a day because of the financial cost of diesel. It costs between R4.50 – R5.00 per kWh from diesel power and this cost will go up in the future.

Economic

The third pillar of sustainability is economic which is often the most important for the development and growth of a country. However economic development and growth in the developing world are grossly affected by its limited power availability. It is impossible for a country to grow if its power supply does not increase.

Immediate effects on business from limited power includes:

  • Trading times limited to daylight hours
  • Inability to have internet banking, credit card machines etc. (cash on hand is dangerous)
  • Hampered production and efficiency (blackouts decrease revenue directly)
  • Loss of jobs

Conclusion

This article just touches the surface to the sustainability issues that are caused from an ineffective national power grid. There have been many proposed solutions to governments and organisations such as the Southern African Power Pool, Rural Electrification Strategies, and Decentralised Mini Grids to improve grid supply to the SADC region. However, it will take political will, time and well spent investment in order to provide all citizens with reliable and clean electricity.