Africa - Can the Continent Build a Sustainable Energy Future?

In our turbulent and uncertain world, countries like China and India have emerged as nations leading the charge towards global economic growth, industrializing through fossil fuels.  However, despite the emergence of these successful economies, energy poverty continues to be an issue for countries across Africa that lacks the infrastructure for even small-scale energy developments. And while the slate is clean for countries across Africa to explore the vast resources available to them, they also have to work through the challenges that those same resources pose. For this reason, academics, researchers, engineers and business leaders came together to speak to those challenges and share ideas to help create a sustainable energy future, a platform for economic development in Africa.  The Global Commerce Forum’s event held in Denver challenged participants to look at potential development based on clean energy complemented by natural gas.

Unlike other countries around the world, the nations that make up Africa lack the monetary resources and the infrastructure for such development. While Africa has lots of sun and wind that blows across the open plains, they do not have manufacturing facilities, concrete plants or transportation to service such large-scale green energy developments.

There are, however, huge reserves of undiscovered and unrecovered natural gas throughout the coastal basins, North-Central Africa, the Chad Basin and through the Nile Delta. Currently, there is a lack of sub-structure for recoverable reserves but these Pre-Cambrian, Devonian and Jurassic source rocks contain huge shale gas potential. This has of course already captured the attention of multi-nationals like Chevron, Swakor (now NAMCOR), Shell and Anadarko who operate across the continent in basins like Tindouf and Karoo that are comparable to the United States’ Barnett and Marcellus shales respectively.

Even with these large-scale operations headed by powerful companies, Africa with its assessed reserves still only has 52 land rigs, 26 off-shore rigs and only five new proposed facilities to produce conventional oil but not unconventional. The climate for new wells however looks slow to change, especially with regulatory issues from geopolitical influences plaguing various areas along with local concern for surface and ground water contamination. But even these challenges can be worked through with proper education regarding the existing technology and techniques.

The real challenge is the water resource conundrum, especially as it pertains to hydraulic fracturing which requires huge amounts of water reserves as well as recycling. Because of the operation locations, there is limited access not just to water but water infrastructure and the availability of the markets that would access such gas. Add in the cost of transportation and the vision seems almost insurmountable.

“Natural gas isn’t the solution, it is the foundation,” said Paula Gant, VP of Regulatory Affairs for the American Gas Association. With the help of small-scale renewables, cities and towns can experience some power where there was not any before while large-scale traditional energy development by large multi-nationals such as Chevron, Shell, Anadarko and NAMCOR can help to advance infrastructure through private funding.

One thing is clear, without an energy policy of our own, advancing one for another continent does not seem logical. The people of Africa have shown that they are strong, they are resilient and they are proud. They do not need a handout, they need a hand up, “Africa needs investment and Africans need jobs. Jobs are created by business, not charity,” said John Coors, Chairman, President and CEO of CoorsTek. “If money was the issue for these people than the problem of poverty would have been solved.”

The shale is there. The demand is high. The people need work. The real question is, how do we support businesses to create jobs and help to build the local African economy? Until then, according to the International Energy Agency, tonight when the sun goes down in Africa, roughly 587 million people will be left in the dark.