Understanding East Africa’s energy choices

Our latest blog comes from Amanda Kahunzire, one of the students on our MSc in Sustainable Energy Futures. She has joined us on a Chevening Scholarship from Uganda. Over the summer she is investigating the issues around providing truly sustainable energy in East African countries.

In our quest for a sustainable energy future, it is easy to focus our attention on climate change and the need to lower greenhouse gas emissions alone. In reality energy affects, and is affected by, not only climate, but also land and water. The interactions of these resources with energy and with one another is commonly referred to as the energy, land, water and climate nexus.

It is this nexus I am investigating in the context of my home country Uganda and its neighbours. Working with Dr Kaveh Madani I am focussing on quantifying the system implications of different energy alternatives for the region in my dissertation Using Multi-Criteria Decision Making to assess the resource efficiency of energy portfolios for East Africa.

East Africa as defined by IRENA and used in this study, Sudan, South Sudan, Eritrea, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Somalia, Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda, Burundi, Tanzania
East Africa as defined by IRENA and used in this study, Sudan, South Sudan, Eritrea, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Somalia, Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda, Burundi, Tanzania

East Africa is one of the least developed parts of the world, but has in recent years consistently proved to be one of the fastest developing on the continent. Economies such as Ethiopia, Kenya and Rwanda are making significant strides in ICT, transport and, relevant to this research, energy.

It is known that energy is an essential component for any form of development and thus, developing economies such as those in East Africa must think long and hard about their future energy portfolios. Energy planners must appreciate the interplay between different sectors and attempt to arrive at near optimal energy mixes which will best utilize all available resources, while still meeting the needs of the future generation – as is the aim of sustainable development.

The existence of the nexus’ complex interdependencies necessitates the application of a “System of Systems” approach to analyse and assess the sustainability of different energy alternatives. This allows me to combine the work and research being done in the area into a larger, cohesive, view of the region.

Alongside the nexus there are other considerations for energy planning I need to contend with. These include the cost of energy, technical issues and constraints, as well as the local social and political environment. What has been surprising is that previous research in this space has produced results that show with conventional fuels, such as natural gas, outperforming renewables, such as biomass, when a system approach is taken.

Northern corridor road from Kampala to Gulu at Matugga Town in Wakiso District
Northern corridor road in Kampala, Uganda by Wulman83

Although the region already enjoys a significant share of renewables (up to 75%), it has a combined electricity access rate of only 23%. This coupled with the steep population growth rate, projected by the UN to rise to over 420 million by 2030 necessitates massive investment in new generation to satisfy future demands. A growing population will not only require more energy, but also more water and land, and the strain on these resources will only be exacerbated by the increased industry and infrastructural development synonymous with growing economies. Further still, recent discoveries of fossil fuel deposits in the region raise concerns over stranded assets and under-utilised resources.

The intention of my research is not to generate a single optimum solution (energy portfolio) for the region. Rather, I aim to highlight the trade-offs that arise with each choice of energy portfolio in order to make stakeholders in the energy space aware of the potential short and long term consequences of their decisions today. It is hoped that such information will allow for more informed decisions.

Due to the nexus and interplay of different criteria, no single portfolio will eliminate every possible risk, but it is expected that decision makers will choose those portfolios that present the level of risk that they are willing to bear, or for which mitigation measures are available.

Amanda Kahunzire

After completing a BSc in Electrical Engineering at the University of Cape Town, I went on to work for Uganda’s biggest electricity distribution utility for 2 years.

Uganda’s electricity industry is predominantly hinged on centralised hydro generation, and to-date over 80% of Uganda’s population (mainly in rural areas) continues to lack access to electricity.

The unique situation in Uganda, and many sub-saharan African countries calls for new approaches to the electrification problem, with particular focus on affordable, off-grid solutions in addition to a diverse centralized generation portfolio. These challenges can be overcome with renewable energy, of which the continent has abundant resource potential.

I chose to do the MSc in Sustainable Energy Futures primarily because of its rich course content and multi-disciplinarity. Addressing the challenges of our future energy systems requires a broader appreciation of social, economic, political and environmental synergies in order to develop sustainable solutions. I hope that my time on the course will equip me to be a thought leader in this space in Africa and globally, and I look forward to applying the skills learned this year to coming up with lasting solutions to our growing energy needs.

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