Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Energy Scarcity in the Green Heart of Africa

By Socrates Djemba

Socratesse Djemba, a student in Lewis & Clark Law School's LL.M program, interned with GEI this summer. Socratesse is originally from the Democratic Republic of Congo, and his blogs reflect on energy insecurity and policy in the DRC.

 The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is a central African country with incredible natural resources and more than 70 million inhabitants. Despite its potential to supply "green" electricity to the entire African continent, 91% of the DRC’s population lacks access to electricity. In other words, about 64 million inhabitants of 72 million live without electricity. The DRC struggles to meet the high demands of its population and the industry. Biomass and waste combustion produce about 95% of total energy in the DRC, and the electricity sector only supplies 3% of total energy to the entire population. Of this 3%, more than 93% comes from hydroelectric power source. In 2005, the Congolese government inventoried potential power plants around the country and listed 89 power plants, 44 of which are hydroelectric and 42 geothermal. While hydropower supplies about 2,409 MW, thermal power only has an installed capacity of 37 MW.

Moreover, the reliability of existing electricity access is debatable. Even in urban areas, electricity is intermittent. For multiple reasons, people expect power outages every week. The first reason is the obsolescence of equipment. Overloaded transmission and distribution networks due to high demand of electricity also cause outages. The most significant issue is the phenomenon of "load shedding.” In fact, electricity distribution authorities decide to supply electricity to some neighborhoods on odd days, and to some others on even days. As every battle has its victims, many neighborhoods in the Capital are totally forgotten for many months. Thus, they lack access to reliable electricity. The situation is worse in rural areas where the government struggles to construct transmission lines. As a matter of fact, the majority of indigenous populations live without any electricity at all.

To compensate for this deficit, people resort to burning wood and wastes as their primary energy supply for cooking and light. As the DRC covers over 60% of the Congo Basin rainforests-the world’s second largest forest-forest products constitute the main source of energy both in rural and urban areas. Sourced from Congolese forests, wood fuel comprises firewood and charcoal. Even in some urban areas, most people use charcoal and firewood as primary fuels for cooking. Those who have access to electricity use charcoal as an alternative fuel in case of a power outage or low availability of electricity. In industrial sector, lack of electricity encumbers mining activities, which contribute to the country's economy. Thus, many mining companies use diesel or gas for generators in case of load shedding. Furthermore, Congolese have a tradition of using charcoal and firewood as primary fuels for cooking at ceremonial events. As biomass and wastes generate 95% of energy in the country, we can imagine the disaster of overexploitation with a population of more than 70 million. Indeed, a large part of deforestation of the Congolese forests is attributable to logging for wood fuel. It would not be a surprise to know that environmentalists have listed the Congo Basin among the places where the 80% of the world's deforestation is about to occur in 15 next years.

The area of the DRC is approximately 2,345,000 km2, and could clearly support numerous renewable power facilities. To increase energy supply, the DRC’s government has focused on increasing oil extraction and developing large hydropower dams. Both of these approaches raise environmental concerns, although hydropower development—if done properly—could substantially increase electricity supply throughout the country.

First, the DRC is extremely rich in natural resources, including hydrocarbons. Oil is discovered almost anywhere, and oil extraction offers tremendous amounts of money to the national economy. Although we lack exact data for oil extraction, some sources show that the Congolese government envisions an increase in oil production from 25,000 to 225,000 barrels/day and an increase of refined oil volume to 100,000 barrels/day. Through this increase, the oil sector could double or even quadruple the national budget. However, this could damage natural resources, because many oil extraction activities occur within lakes and parks. Recently, for example, the Congolese government sought to modify the Virunga National Park boundaries, which is a World Heritage Site, in order to allow for oil extraction. Oil extraction there could disturb the ecosystems and the survival of the last remaining mountain gorillas in the world. The Congolese Prime Minister expressly gave primacy to oil exploration over tourism or conservation of ecosystems in terms of revenue. As another example, when environmentalists called for total ban of oil exploration in Lake Eduard, one of the world's best fishing lakes, the government adamantly refused because of the potential lucrative benefits of oil extraction.

Second, in addition to oil supplies, the DRC has massive hydropower production potential. The DRC is crossed by the Congo River, which is the second most powerful river in the world and the second longest river in Africa. This river has a great potential to generate electricity. Given high flow of this river and its tributaries, the Congo River could produce over 100,000 MW of hydropower each year. However, the existing total installed energy capacity only produces 2,442 MW. This means that only 2% of the DRC's potential hydropower is exploited. But hydropower development should proceed carefully, since dams often damage the quality and quantity of water supply, may lead to the extinction of species, and may interfere with fishing activities and navigation.

The Congolese government and its international partners are currently developing the Grand Inga Dam project, which would produce up to 40,000 MW. In addition to environmental costs of such elephantine power plant, the concern is whether local population would actually benefit from this project because it is mainly funded by countries that need electricity too (South Africa, for example). As this project develops, the Congolese will soon learn whether large project development can help mitigate the energy insecurity that plagues the DRC.

As this post suggests, energy insecurity is a major concern for the people of the DRC. My next blog post will discuss the state of energy policy in the DRC and offer some recommendations for reform.

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