Power problem for Zim and the world

Many in Africa live without electricity and Zimbabwe is no stranger to blackouts. But wealthy nations may be more at risk if the lights went off. As government, business and the green lobby argue over coal vs solar, a new study shows a planet critically short of energy.

It would bring devastation on a scale greater than war and close to a nuclear attack. And Africa, India and developed countries like the USA and Germany are all in peril.

These are findings from the recent release of data on “energy risk” and what would happen if the power went off for days, weeks, even months.

The myriad of tables and numbers published by Global Energy Institute (GEI) in Washington and funded by the US Chamber of Commerce puts Norway first in security with a stable grid, a moderate price for electricity and its own supplies of oil, gas and coal.

The Ukraine is last among 25 of the world’s largest energy users, but South Africa is close to the bottom with a grid that “operates under severe constraints”. A small rise in demand sees the lights go off in cities like Johannesburg and Cape Town.

The study uses a wide range of factors. If, like Japan or South Korea, you rely on imported coal, then how far are your power plants from the port where ships unload that coal? And could the rail or road link be sabotaged? Also, what price do consumers pay, and are the poor at risk, especially in countries with a long, cold winter?

Zimbabwe is retooling its coal-fired generators south of Victoria Falls, and the Wankie Colliery remains a national asset, earning foreign exchange. The world’s biggest dam at Kariba funnels power into overhead lines that carry it south to Harare, but growing demand and a neglect of what used to be world-class infrastructure has seen the country dependent on voltage from South Africa and short of money to pay for it.

Britain has plenty of energy but its biggest generator at Drax in North Yorkshire burns wood pellets imported from the USA. A disruption to shipping would close it down. And Brits pay far more for their kilowatts than most of Europe. Price has become an issue in the UK and especially Australia where it is set to be a major topic at next year’s election.

“It’s frightening to see how close we all live to the brink,” says Barry Worthington, executive director of the US Energy Association (USEA) in Washington.

“Whether you’re in Kenya or Kansas, a natural disaster or a terror attack that shuts off your power for a long period of time could lead to hundreds, even thousands of deaths. Industry would collapse, and schools, hospitals and government would cease to function unless there was a reliable contingency plan.”

The GEI figures factor in risk from every source and the results show a world continually on the brink of shutdown.

In Africa, more than 600 million people live without access to the grid. India has 300 million in darkness, and many in Bangladesh, the Philippines and Indonesia have yet to be connected.

But much of eastern and central Europe relies on gas from Russia, making the region vulnerable to pressure from Moscow, especially in winter.
The US has boosted coal exports to Ukraine and other countries. And supplies of gas from Mozambique and coal from Columbia, Australia and Indonesia give buyers a choice as both Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin play for dominance.

“Our work in Ukraine has been vital to that country’s independence,” Mr Worthington said. “But we still have a long way to go before it is anywhere near secure.”

For all the talk of wind and solar, coal remains a key source of energy and dominates in most nations that score well in the report. But US secretary of state for energy, Rick Perry — who has long defended both coal and renewables — said it was about working in the cleanest way possible.

“No country should have to choose between developing its energy and economy and caring for the environment,” he said. “When nations embrace innovation over regulation, they can do both.”

Perry pointed to a 90 per cent fall in pollutants from fossil-fuel in the US over the past 30 years.

Visiting a clean-coal site in North Dakota this week, he said Washington was ready to share the know-how.

“Not only do we need to innovate here in the United States, but it’s important to make our cleaner, more efficient technology available to other countries as well,” he said.

The composition of coal differs around the world making local research vital, and Perry and other officials have mooted a clean-coal alliance of countries working on a better burn. Informal talks are known to have taken place with Australia, India and Poland among others.

Nigerian academic Dr Samson Bada said the US should put Africa high on the list for any such group.

“Look at countries that are growing their output, and it’s often with coal,” he said. “Kenya has its first plant underway, Tanzania already has one near the border with Mozambique, and Egypt is building a huge clean-coal unit.”

Dr Bada who has worked both on coal and renewables and is a council member of South Africa’s Fossil Fuel Foundation said Africa had much to share.

“I think Europe, Australia and the US can often fall into the trap of seeing this a science that belongs in the developed world. But some of the best research is being done right here. This is especially important when you consider the uniqueness of southern African coal.”

He agreed with Perry that there didn’t have to be a choice between growth and the environment.

“I am passionate about clean air, conservation and all those issues that some activists seem to believe run counter to anything using coal. Sadly, the critics often live in a bubble of privilege in wealthy nations where the grid rarely goes off. They have no idea what it’s like to be poor in an area with no electricity. Africa and India need baseload power at the same level as Europe or the US. And in most countries, that comes from coal or gas.”

The GEI report backs up Bada’s claim. In the Netherlands, 80 per cent of generation comes from fossil fuel. Turkey, Thailand, Norway and South Korea have similar figures.

In 2011, an accident at the Fukushima nuclear project in Japan — caused by an earthquake and tsunami — saw an end to atomic power and the country now relies on coal and gas, both of which need to be imported.

South Africa produces more energy than anywhere else on the continent, 90 per cent of it from coal. Zimbabwe had signaled plans to grow its capacity, but the US has written off July’s election as flawed and investor confidence looks unlikely in the short term.

Beyond Africa, a terror attack on a power site could be devastating for even the most developed economies.

At USEA, Barry Worthington said risk was a factor for every part of the planet.

“You’re only as secure as the current you have on-hand,” he said. “It’s not like water where you can build giant reservoirs that guarantee the flow for one or two years, even in a drought. Electricity is difficult to store, so we have to make more all the time. Ironically, the bigger your economy, the more vulnerable you are in a shutdown.”

“We need to diversify our systems,” Dr Bada said. “We need to use solar, wind, hydro from dams and the big hitters like coal and gas. But no country must never take for granted that things can’t go wrong.

“Our world has become so dependent on electricity that we’re all hostage to it. And the challenge is to make more and make it cleanly. Thanks to science, that is growing ever-more doable,” he said.

Post published in: Environment

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