What “Living Under the Grid” Means
Learning About Energy Access in Cities from Photos of an Informal Settlement
By: Andrew M. Herscowitz, Coordinator for Power Africa
In cities across Africa, the U.S. Government’s Power Africa program is undertaking efforts to bring electricity to homes, including those within the city limits. Many of the people living in these city neighborhoods do not just live near existing power lines — some of them literally live directly under the transmission lines.
Providing access to electricity for the first time is neither simple nor inexpensive. It costs between $500 and $1900¹ for each electrical connection to a home or business in sub-Saharan Africa. Most governments do not have the cash on hand to pay that expense in advance, particularly when it’s uncertain whether customers ultimately will be able to pay for the connection or even the electricity itself. Also, just because a big transmission line runs through a neighborhood does not mean that a wire can be connected to the transmission line to bring power to a home. Substations are needed to reduce the voltage of the power, which is then run through smaller capacity distribution lines that can be attached to homes and businesses.
To date, Power Africa, with its 160 public and private partners, has helped more than 120 power projects comprising more than 10,000 megawatts of new power generation reach financial close. Power Africa also has helped bring first-time electricity to more than 50 million people — but most of those new electrical connections are “off-the-grid.” That’s a wonderful result, but it’s not enough. We need to help connect more people and business to central grids, as well — and to make sure that those grids are functional and financially viable. A key challenge is that only two of the utilities in Africa are actually solvent. We have had some successes with utilities, though. In Nigeria, we helped four power distribution companies connect more than 540,000 new customers and generate more than $160 million in new revenues through improved operational efficiencies, which can be reinvested into the power sector.
Based on what we have learned from our successes and our challenges, in 2018, Power Africa launched its 2.0 strategy, which focuses more on helping power generation projects actually deliver power to homes and businesses, as well as enabling more productive uses of energy. There is no question that there will be demand for this electricity given that there still are 600 million people in sub-Saharan Africa who do not have access to electricity — as long as we build out the infrastructure needed to deliver it.
To understand what it’s like to live literally “under the grid,” the pictures below of an informal settlement tell many stories:
- Many people who do not have electricity have the ability to pay for electricity. Note the satellite dishes on the homes. Obviously, they require power, so many homes that are not grid-connected actually have small generators or batteries that can be used to power appliances. Diesel-powered generators represent a missed opportunity for the utility.
2. The first step to electrifying a community often involves installing a large community light. Many cities initially bring an extremely large street lamp into communities to bring light in the evenings. The light below is directly above the local market. In Nigeria, Power Africa is working with the Rural Electrification Agency to bring reliable electricity through solar mini-grids to local markets, which currently use a tremendous amount of diesel power from generators in an uncoordinated manner. Businesses will have more reliable and less expensive electricity as a result of this effort.
3. Even people who live under the grid still use solar home systems. In many countries in sub-Saharan Africa, where the sun often shines more than 300 days per year, it is never a bad idea to have a solar panel. After all, even if someone is connected to the grid, if there is a power cut, the solar panel can still power small appliances, charge mobile phones, and provide basic lighting, allowing daily home functions and businesses to continue.
4. (What you don’t see). People are reselling power to their neighbors at sometimes exorbitant prices. Not everyone in an informal settlement has an electrical connection — especially those who constructed their homes after the city invested in electrical connections. Consequently, some entrepreneurial homeowners attach multiple connections, illegally, to their meters and then sell power to their neighbors at any price they wish.
What Power Africa is doing about it.
The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), which coordinates Power Africa’s efforts for the U.S. Government, is working with cities, national governments, and utilities to expand access to the grid and improve quality of service. In Ethiopia, for example, USAID helped improve cash collection at the Ethiopian Electric Utility (EEU), resulting in over $5 million in increased revenues and the connection of more than 10,000 customers. In Liberia, USAID and the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) helped in procuring a new management services contract for the Liberia Electricity Corporation (LEC), which will reduce losses and connect an estimated 200,000 homes and businesses to the grid over five years. Power Africa, through USAID, has launched major new programs that will reduce the cost and time required for grid access across Africa and strengthen the utilities, adding millions of new electrical connections.
Power Africa has made a lot of progress since its launch in 2013, taking an all-of-the-above technology approach and leveraging more than $20 billion in investment to advance its goals. We have learned a lot from our partners and our experiences, so we know that if we keep rolling up our sleeves and working with governments, development partners, and the private sector, we can end energy poverty in sub-Saharan Africa.
Power Africa is the US Government-led initiative, coordinated by USAID, to double electricity access in sub-Saharan Africa by 2030. To learn more, visit our website: www.usaid.gov/powerafrica.
- If You Build It, Will They Consume? Key Challenges for Universal, Reliable, and Low-Cost Electricity Delivery in Kenya — Working Paper 491, by Jay Taneja, Center for Global Development, July 2018