Africa's Electrification Mix Series: Environmental Impact of Electrification Strategies (Part 4 of 4)

30 May 2024
Africa's Electrification Mix Series: Environmental Impact of Electrification Strategies (Part 4 of 4)

Africa’s energy challenges have negative environmental implications for millions. Across cities, many businesses, communities and households rely on alternative sources to meet their energy needs. These sources are usually polluting, adversely impacting the surrounding environment and the general well-being of Africans. 

From energy challenges to environmental issues

Across sub-Saharan Africa, traditional biomass is the main energy source for cooking. Firewood and charcoal, the two main forms, make up 95% of all residential energy use, with 80% of the population relying on it for cooking. The use of these woodfuels significantly contributes to the deforestation and forest degradation of both the rainforests and grassland forests. This in turn has led to devastating climate change and ecological destruction.

The reduction of the forest area has reduced their capacity to absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and decreased rainfall generation which causes severe drought, especially in the grasslands. In the rainforest, deforestation alters land use, exposing huge swathes of land to heavy rains that erode the topsoil. These changes ultimately destroy the continent’s habitats and ecosystems, reducing its biodiversity. 

Woodfuel use especially in poorly ventilated kitchens and cooking areas also negatively affects the health of millions. According to one estimate, illnesses like pneumonia, cancer, and chronic lung diseases are caused by exposure to woodfuel combustion. These illnesses result in about 2 million deaths annually, with the majority of fatalities being women and children.

Due to the lack of reliable electricity supply, businesses, industries and households augment their power needs with fossil fuel generator sets. These diesel and petrol gensets provide the majority of power supply in urban areas across the continent. In Nigeria alone, it is estimated that fossil fuel gensets provide about 40GW of electricity, over three times the installed grid capacity. 

Gensets contribute significantly to greenhouse gas and particulate matter (PM2.5) emissions, as well as emit other harmful pollutants. Across sub-Saharan Africa, generators contribute about 15% of all Nitrogen oxide emissions, and their  PM2.5 emissions are equal to 35% of all motor vehicle emissions. 

These gensets which are operated near residences and work buildings emit pollutants that increase the risk of negative health outcomes for millions of Africans. PM2.5 is one of the leading causes of adverse health effects due to air pollution. Short-term exposure to PM2.5, can cause premature mortality, increase hospital admissions for heart or lung causes, and acute and chronic respiratory illnesses. Gensets also contribute to noise pollution which can cause stress and decrease productivity. One study estimates gensets to be the largest cause of noise in Nigerian cities, ahead of automobiles. 

A greener future

The adoption of clean energy across the continent is reducing these negative impacts. In rural communities, the provision of solar-powered off-grid solutions coupled with productive use equipment like improved cook stoves (ICS) and solar cookers is helping to reduce the use of wood fuels. One study estimates that improved cookstoves used 33% less fuel and emitted 75% less CO2e 75% when compared to the traditional three-stone open-fire stoves. These cleaner options are beneficial to women and children, eliminating their exposure to the harmful pollutants from wood smoke. The increasing refinement of solar technology would only expand the proliferation of these cleaner solutions. 

In urban residential areas and commercial clusters, rooftop and commercial and industrial (C&I) solar deployments are replacing diesel and petrol gensets. This is helping to reduce power sector emissions across African cities. Another benefit is that they help to reduce the ambient air and noise pollution caused by the gensets, facilitating a healthy environment for city residents. 

More work needs to be done to accelerate the use of clean energy systems across Africa. The continent is set to see an increase in the magnitude of climate change impacts in the future. Higher temperatures, increased drought and changing rainfall patterns. The only way to improve Africa’s resilience and reduce its susceptibility to these impacts is to promote the adoption of clean energy sources and technologies that decarbonise the energy sector.

*Image Credit: Power Africa


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