Much emphasis is rightly being given to Africa’s electricity generation backlogs, with the African Union estimating that a whopping 700 GW of new capacity will be required by 2040 to close the anticipated gap between demand and supply. However, for Africa to genuinely begin unlocking some of its impressive latent energy potential, just as much priority needs to be given to dealing with the continent’s serious transmission and distribution inadequacies.
That is not to dismiss the potential of microgrids in materially improving security of supply, particularly in far-flung rural communities. But, if African countries are going to truly make the transition to more diversified industrial economies, they will have to invest in utility-scale generation, supported by appropriately scaled grids.
This issue came to the fore at the recent Africa Energy Indaba, where World Energy Council secretary-general Dr Christoph Frei used his position as a session moderator to canvass, in particular, for accelerating the development of the ‘Zizabona’ electricity trans- mission interconnector – a project seen as critical to stimulating investment in new generating capacity in the power-stressed Southern African region.
As implied by its name, the project could facilitate power trade across Zimbabwe, Zambia, Botswana and Namibia, ease congestion on the existing north–south transmission corridor from South Africa to Zimbabwe and add a 400 kV western corridor to the Southern African Power Pool. It has been estimated previously that the project, which could involve a capital investment of more than $220-million, would be able to support the transfer of 600 MW of electricity arising primarily from existing and future hydroelectric plants located in Zambia and Zimbabwe.
Zambia Energy and Water Development Minister Dora Siliya argued that, despite the country’s current drought-induced electricity crisis, Zambia still had ambitions to expand its hydroelectric footprint. For instance, Zambia and Zimbabwe remained keen on the development of the 2 400 MW Batoka Gorge Hydro Scheme, which could involve an investment of $5-billion.
Besides tariffs that allowed investors to earn an economic return, Batoka Gorge would also require regional offtake, which, in turn, would depend on the availability of transmission infrastructure to facilitate cross-border sales.
With strong urging from Frei, the African Union Commission’s Dr Elham Mahmoud Ahmed Ibrahim indicated that the organi- sation would be willing to take up the cause with the African Development Bank, which would be meeting in Zambia in March.
There is little question that Zizabona is but one crucial interconnector that could ease the region’s current ‘gridlock’. Indeed, the future of major projects, such as the Grand Inga, will hinge on whether or not the Democratic Republic of Congo will be able to sell power to markets to its south. Nevertheless, the African electricity sector needs regional flagships and hopefully Zizabona can become just that.