How shall we power Africa sustainably?

Africa has 117 per cent more sunshine than Germany, the global leader in solar energy, and the continent has shown great progress in the development of its solar energy markets over the recent years. In all of these markets, it has been proven that sustainable energy alternatives are only fruitful through the provision of financing, technology, and capacity building aimed at sustainable exploitation of our energy resources including fossil fuels while striving to minimise emissions.

In a May article, President Museveni made a powerful case for the EACOP pipeline and the development of Uganda’s oil in the Lake Albert Basin. In addition, during this week’s State-of-the-Nation address, the President advocated for the value addition of several commodities including the construction of a refinery for our crude oil. It came as no surprise when, earlier this week, a collection of Ugandan civil society organisations led by AFIEGO (African Institute for Energy Governance) wrote an open letter responding to the article.

This rejoinder from AFIEGO spells out in excellent detail the energy poverty in Uganda. For example, it states that “the Ugandan population still relies on crude biomass to meet its cooking energy needs; 73 per cent rely on firewood and 21 per cent on charcoal.” The core argument is that we need to prioritise our energy needs and develop renewable energy sources while abandoning oil. While I agree that we need to develop solar projects, I disagree with the argument that we should abandon fossil fuels haphazardly. We cannot rule out the sustainable exploitation of Africa’s oil and gas resources.

Another idea from AFIEGO is that instead of producing oil, Uganda can produce 5,000MW (Megawatts) of solar power. For a number of reasons, this is not sustainable. The production of solar energy on such a massive scale would require hundreds of thousands or even millions of solar panels. If producing 1MW of solar energy requires between four to seven acres of land, therefore, 5,000MW would require approximately 35,000 acres of land. If activists are worried about the number of people EACOP will allegedly displace, how many people would such an extensive solar project have to displace permanently?

AFIEGO proposed that Uganda should divert $15b meant for oil projects to renewable energy. We must ask where this $15b will come from. It will not be from government so, it is possible that they are suggesting we demand it from the private sector players Total Energies and CNOOC. Over the last decade, both of these companies have invested substantial sums of their money to find and extract oil in Uganda. This investment continues and should not be discouraged. We must maximise the presence of these companies in Uganda, their resources, and experience, to help develop EACOP and commercialise our oil. The companies have employed and trained several Ugandans and have added value to a significant number of Ugandan businesses. The people affected by this project will be compensated and resettled. Not to mention the sizable infrastructure and investment in the oil-rich areas.

It goes without saying that we must ensure that we develop a refinery in Uganda. The lack of refining capacity in Africa was the subject of a recent study. It found that Africa produces more than four million barrels of oil per day but has a refining capacity of just over a million barrels a day and of which only 30 per cent of that capacity was used last year. This means the whole continent imports all of its fuel at astronomical prices.

The parable of the talents in Matthew 25: 14-30 comes to mind. In that story, three men were given talents to use. Two used them and were blessed. One did not use his talent but conserved it and gave it back to the master as he had received it. The master, angry that the man had failed to utilise the available resources told the man who had conserved what he was given that that man will be thrown into a place “where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth”. We have lived far too long in that place already and cannot afford to keep our resources buried in the ground any longer.

The writer is an advocate and partner at Kampala Associated Advocates

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