The blackouts that gripped Texas for several days in February, as temperatures dipped to record lows, were stunning for a state that prides itself on its abundant and diverse supplies of energy. Texas is the United States’ largest natural gas producer, largest wind energy producer, and largest oil producer. It is also the nation’s largest energy exporter.
Texas residents were angry at political leaders for the energy system’s failure. Similarly, political leaders in Africa are well aware that their success is pinned to providing their constituents with safe and reliable access to energy. They might be asking themselves how an energy-abundant, rich state that likes to invest in infrastructure can suffer a significant energy crisis.
For energy policymakers across the continent, the lessons of the Texas debacle will be a warning sign in their planning for power grid reliability and resilience to adverse events.
What lessons does the Texas experience offer for Africa?
First and foremost, access to reliable electricity is a key ingredient for modernity and economic prosperity. When power systems failed, it threatened water treatment, food preservation, human life from exposure to the cold, and all economic activity that needed the power to take place.
The blackouts cost the state economy upward of $130 billion in damages and losses, and some people who did have power saw their bills spike by thousands of dollars.
But to put that figure in context, the shock and limitations of the multi-day outage in Texas is a reality that millions of Africans have unfortunately learned to live with routinely. Studies have shown that just 40% of the continent has access to reliable electricity.
It wasn’t just one thing that went wrong in Texas. The failure was systemic and multifaceted. However, what the experience drove home is that the traditional system is no longer fit to serve our needs on a global scale.
Preparing for an increasingly erratic climate
Planners and policymakers must incorporate climate science into their designs so that we aren’t building our systems for yesterday’s weather.
As extreme weather events become more frequent and common, states that fail to invest in maintaining infrastructure and rely heavily on a widespread system with fragile breakpoints will find themselves powerless when the storm comes. Africa in particular is at great risk of declining crop yields and will struggle to produce sufficient food for domestic consumption due to the increase in temperatures and sporadic weather patterns. With 2020 being the year for record-breaking heat waves across the world, preparing for more erratic and severe weather is now a necessity.
Texas failed to integrate the reality of climate change into its planning. As a state with significant populations in a semi-arid climate, Texas prepares the grid for the hot afternoons of the summer. But today the state experiences arctic fronts more often than Texans care to admit. Wind turbines iced over, solar panels were covered in snow, and more critically, the fleet of thermal plants that use nuclear, coal, and natural gas fuels came off-line as equipment and fuel supplies froze.
For developing countries, the risk of failing to prepare for these events is far higher, as the lower per capita incomes of their constituents mean that even minor disruptions to supply have the potential to cause major humanitarian issues. In Africa, for example, many of the Covid-19 vaccines require reliable refrigeration to retain efficacy but shockingly 25 per cent of health care facilities in sub-Saharan Africa have no electricity and nearly three-quarters have unreliable power. This shouldn’t be acceptable in the 21st century.
Resilience through distributed renewable energy
Instead of building the same old style of large power plants far away from customers with transmission lines that can fail, communities around the world should adopt Texas’ attitudes but at a smaller level: self-reliant, interconnected microgrids that include distributed renewable generation, on-site storage, and other technologies that can simultaneously mitigate energy poverty while improving energy security for the bulk grid.
Centralized, fossil-fuel-powered grids are unable to meet Africa’s electricity needs. They are too expensive to build and are hugely unreliable. Businesses in African nations that rely on centralized grid systems experience an average of 9 outages a month, representing nearly 10 percent of total downtime. Not surprisingly, this downtime leads to an estimated 8 percent in business revenue losses.
To compensate for this, many businesses (and some households) use fossil-fuel-powered generators (typically diesel, petrol, or kerosene). Consequently, there are approximately 9.2 million backup gensets in Africa, with an installed capacity equivalent to 100-150 large coal power plants. Users of these gensets spend US$13 billion per year on fuel alone, representing 20 percent of Africa’s total fuel consumption.
It is therefore imperative that the world continues to invest in distributed renewable energy systems and in doing so, we can ensure that the development of sustainable energy is not only about cleaner resources to avert more extreme weather, but also about building more resilient systems to mitigate the damage already done.
A bonus is that regions like Africa also benefit from socio-economic gains too. As Africa emerges from the Covid-19 crisis, tackling both access to electricity and access to jobs, a survey from Power for All shows that decentralized renewable energy, which includes rooftop solar and mini-grids, is already an important part of the solution.
In Nigeria specifically, according to the survey, the DRE sector accounted for 13,000 direct formal and informal jobs in 2017-18, already 30% more than the country’s electricity, gas, and steam sector, and that number was expected to increase to 76,000 in 2022-23. Jobs being created within the decentralized renewable energy industry are also quality jobs: the majority are middle-income, full-time, and long-term. Women and youth are also well represented in Nigeria, where women were 52% of the direct employees and nearly half of informal workers, much higher than the fossil fuel industry.
Ultimately the Texas energy crisis was avoidable and solvable, and this same logic can be applied to Africa. As we upgrade old systems, politicians who invest in distributed renewable energy systems will be rewarded with new economic opportunities and improved climate outcomes. Systems will be more efficient, cleaner, and resilient – making distributed renewable energy an investment that keeps giving.
ASHVIN DAYAL is the Senior Vice President of The Rockefeller Foundation’s global power and climate initiative, focused on scaling up renewable energy access to drive green and inclusive local development. He oversees a diverse range of investments in the distributed renewable energy space, including energy project investments, along with grants for data and technology innovation, policy, research, and advocacy – all aimed at dramatically accelerating access to reliable, productive use electricity in under-served markets.
MICHAEL E. WEBBER is the Josey Centennial Professor of Energy Resources at the University of Texas in Austin and chief science and technology officer at ENGIE, a global energy company headquartered in Paris. His documentary television series, Power Trip: The Story of Energy, is available on Apple TV, Amazon Prime Video, and local PBS stations.