California’s Blackout Is Africa’s Everyday Reality

Enforced power outages in the Golden State are a reminder that we’ll need energy and development to fight the effects of climate change

An Oakland police cruiser has its lights on in the Montclair shopping district during the PG&E California power outage.
An Oakland police cruiser flashes its lights in the Montclair shopping district during the PG&E power outage across California. Photo: MediaNews Group/Getty

PPower outages across California affecting some 2.5 million people have been creating chaos in the state. Traffic lights are down, refrigerators are off, schools are closed, including the University of California, Berkeley’s campus. Water utilities may be shut off too, impacting agriculture and access to clean drinking water. Public health is at risk as people reliant on ventilators and other medical devices scramble for backups, while hospitals may even have to temporarily close. Outraged Californians are panic-buying generators, batteries, gas, and bottled water. This is what happens when the power system — on which nearly all aspects of modern life and a modern economy rely — goes down.

Yet California’s traumatic week of erratic energy is the daily norm for billions of people around the world. While California’s shut-off might last five days or more, in Nigeria, home to 200 million, people experience power outages an average of 32 times per month. Unreliable energy is an everyday occurrence.

The typical American uses 13,000 kilowatt-hours (kWh) of electricity per year versus just 150 kWh in Nigeria and less than 100 kWh in Ethiopia.

Even worse, policymakers, entrepreneurs, and philanthropists most often try to attack this global problem by exporting California’s approaches: Mitigate by reducing energy consumption and adapt by transitioning to small distributed generation. Unfortunately, these are the exact opposite of what Africa needs.

California’s climate strategy: mitigate via energy austerity and adapt by going small

Californians are trying to reduce the emissions that cause climate change through such measures as renewable energy mandates and efficiency targets. But Californians know that, while mitigation might blunt the worst-case scenarios, the effects of climate change are already happening. That’s why the state’s residents have an increasing urgency to adapt to the new reality, not just mitigate it.

Fortunately, California is starting in a good place. When it gets too hot, most residents can crank up the air conditioning, buy water, and replace spoiled food. We’re rich enough as a country to invest billions — the Green New Deal proposes to spend trillions — to build safer buildings, seawalls, and other critical infrastructure. And California’s deadly wildfires and other calamities are accelerating calls to invest in better energy storage and shift to distributed energy generation.

Unlike Africa, California’s adaptation sits atop a high-energy ecosystem

But unlike Africa and much of the rest of the world, California can afford to transition to rooftop solar and other innovations of adaptation. As the world’s fifth-largest economy, it has both the resources and (far more importantly) an entire high-energy ecosystem that makes these approaches possible. Residential homes in the Bay Area, fed up with the lumbering local utility, may opt to go off-grid, but the big technology firms — Apple, Facebook, Google, Tesla — all have high-energy connections that kept humming even through the recent outages. This is no coincidence.

Smartphones are a good example of how small-is-beautiful energy can be misleading. Everyone can charge a phone on a tiny system, even on a single solar lamp. But smartphones only function if all the invisible high-energy infrastructure behind it stays up and running. In fact, charging the battery accounts for less than 1% of the power needed for a smartphone. The other 99% is needed to manufacture the phone and run the cell towers and data centers. Having a fully-charged smartphone without all this hidden infrastructure makes it useless. The same is true for a modern economy; everyone can take their homes off-grid for basic appliances, but the economy will still depend on a stable, large-scale energy system for industry, commerce, agriculture, and transportation.

But what about those 200 million Nigerians? And everyone else on the African continent, which will be home to one-third of humanity by the end of this century? Few Africans have the wealth and resources to adapt like those living in California. The average Nigerian earns only about $5 per day, so they don’t have the safety net that most Americans can fall back on. And Nigeria’s economy, the continent’s biggest, isn’t growing fast enough to create jobs and lift incomes.

While Africa is likely to suffer most from the effects of climate change, it is indisputably the region of the world that bears by far the least responsibility for those effects.

What’s the leading barrier to economic expansion in Nigeria and most African countries? Lack of affordable and reliable power. The typical American uses 13,000 kilowatt-hours (kWh) of electricity per year versus just 150 kWh in Nigeria and less than 100 kWh in Ethiopia. The energy inequality gaps are so vast that Californians consume more electricity playing video games than the entire country of Kenya. The Golden State’s hot tubs and swimming pools use more power than all of Senegal. In practical terms, this means most Africans don’t have access to the same benefits of lighting, heat and cooling, computers and data centers, and all the other machines needed to earn income and grow an economy.

Africa’s climate agenda is about adaptation, not mitigation

If the energy inequality chasm between California and African countries isn’t bad enough, many people make the mistake of transposing a Western climate strategy to Africa. Here’s why that’s wrong: California’s climate mitigation strategy is in large part built around pushing for energy efficiency and decarbonizing the power sector. Many advocates have mindlessly applied this same strategy to Africa, such as calls to ban financing for fossil fuels and arguing for renewables-only restrictions on power projects. I’ve been told more than once by leaders in philanthropy that “because of climate, we can’t afford for every African to live our lifestyles.”

But while Africa is likely to suffer most from the effects of climate change, it is indisputably the region of the world that bears by far the least responsibility for those effects. Today, the average American emits 33 times as much carbon dioxide as the average Nigerian. And African economies are also already using mostly low-carbon sources of power. Kenya’s electricity mix, for example, is dominated by zero-emission geothermal, while the country recently built the continent’s largest wind farm.

Beyond the ethical considerations (and the hypocrisy), insisting on renewables-only for Africa can’t possibly work as a climate mitigation strategy because of simple arithmetic. Preventing a handful of gas-fired power plants in Nigeria or Ghana or Mozambique won’t have any measurable effect on global emissions when the United States has more than 3,000 power plants running on fossil fuels. Blocking big power plants in Africa will, however, have a very real damaging effect on humans living in those countries. That’s why transferring California’s climate mitigation strategy of energy austerity to Africa can’t help — but it will cause measurable harm to hundreds of millions.

But it gets even worse. While Californians have a wealthy high-energy system to fall back on for adaptation, Africans don’t. If Nigerians and Mozambicans are supposed to respond to extreme weather, drought, and rising temperatures, they’re going to need concrete and steel for resilient infrastructure, pumped irrigation for agriculture, desalination for clean water, cold storage, and a whole lot of air conditioning. Here’s the kicker: All these technologies of adaptation are energy intensive. So climate change means African countries are going to need far more energy, not less.

In California, blackouts are an inconvenience. In Africa, blackouts are a way of life. The uproar over recent power shutdowns provides a good reminder of why all nations need reliable high-energy systems. If we’re all to respond to the dual challenges of promoting human prosperity for all while building climate resilience, energy is a core part of the solution.

Founder and executive director of the Energy for Growth Hub, nonres fellow at Baker Institute at Rice, Payne Institute at Colorado School of Mines, and CGD.

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