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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 19 December 2018

Africa wants the same opportunity as the West had to develop

Coal is abundant across Africa. South Africa alone has around 200 billion tonnes – enough to keep the lights on for at least 200 years

South Africa's state power utility Eskom is among companies pushing for more coal usage in Africa. Mike Hutchings/Reuters
South Africa's state power utility Eskom is among companies pushing for more coal usage in Africa. Mike Hutchings/Reuters

The West used coal to power its industrial revolution and now many developing countries argue they should not be held back from using this abundant resource to do the same.

Coal is abundant across Africa. South Africa alone has around 200 billion tonnes – enough to keep the lights on for at least 200 years, according to figures by government electricity utility Eskom, which wants to be able to use the resource for more power generation. Other countries in the region such as Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Botswana also have vast reserves.

Most Arabian Gulf oil exporters have the blessing of being close to the ocean, meaning they can readily export their crude and thus monetise an important resource. Coal deposits in Southern Africa are harder to ship, since they require rail infrastructure and ports.

Since countries such as Botswana and Zimbabwe are landlocked, they rely on neighbouring nations for access to the sea. Some with coal plus a coastline still have difficulty getting their product to market. Tanzania has deposits in the Mbeya area, nearly 700 kilometres eastwards from the coastline and port of Dar es Salaam.

As a result, coal-rich countries are looking at alternatives to turning their coal resources into bankable assets. One way is to build small-scale electricity plants at the coal source. Tanzania's Mbeya coal to power project, for instance, will see a 300 megawatt plant built in the far west of the country.

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Much of its power will be exported to neighbouring countries such as Zambia and the Democratic Republic of Congo, both of which experience chronic energy shortages.

Others are being a little more ambitious. Mozambique, Botswana and Zimbabwe are in talks over a $550 million port and 1,700km rail venture. This will link the coalfields of the latter two countries to Mozambique on the East coast of Africa, making exports to Asia and the Gulf a possibility.

Of course, coal energy must now compete with renewables, which present a far more appealing environmental profile. However, it is unlikely that many African countries will be able to afford – or even have access to – some of the backup solutions required to turn wind and solar into a 24/7 resource.

Pumped hydro stations that use electricity during off-peak demand hours to send water uphill, then allowing it to run down and turn turbines, are a common form of energy storage in the West. But many African countries lack the water resources or geography to make such projects widely available. Only South Africa has a pumped storage scheme, recently opened in its water-rich midlands.

Batteries are also unlikely to make it as a form of energy storage in African countries any time soon, as the add-on complexity of such a systems would make electricity unaffordable for most. While solar and wind projects are now common across the continent, especially Southern Africa, the need for base power remains.

For now, it appears countries with coal reserves and a shortage of electricity will old-school it and continue to build fossil-fuel burning plants to meet the needs of their growing populations.