Africa’s energy poverty: Millions in rural areas are not part of Ethiopia’s energy transition drive

Nearly 86% of Ethiopia’s energy demand is met through biomass; most people here live in energy poverty

By Mekonnen Teshome
Published: Tuesday 11 July 2023
Ethiopia is one of the countries with the largest electricity access deficits. Photo: iStock

Eight years ago, while shifting to Addis Ababa, Alem Mengiste hoped her life would change in the coming years. Mengiste migrated from Woldia, a small town in northern Ethiopia, expecting a better life. She is currently a resident of Addis Ababa, the capital city of Ethiopia. 

However, much has stayed the same in her lifestyle. “While in Woldia, I used firewood to cook my food, even in Addis Ababa, I use the same,” she said.

Mengiste’s challenges are not just related to cooking fuel. Even while living in a city, she faces problems linked to poor electricity access; she uses kerosene lamps to light her home. 

Mengiste’s case is not an isolated one; many Ethiopians living in and around Addis Ababa share the same story. Despite Ethiopia’s aggressive expansion of renewable energy sources, millions of households in rural areas and big cities depend on biomass as they cannot access essential energy services.

Also read: Africa’s energy poverty: How energy crisis is gripping Malawi

Ethiopia is one of the countries with the largest electricity access deficits; available sources show that most people here live in energy poverty.

The country’s Water and Energy State Minister, Sultan Woli, confirmed that 52 per cent of Ethiopians have no access to electricity, and many live in Energy poverty.

Despite the huge gap between electricity demand and access, Ethiopia is working towards ensuring universal access to affordable, reliable and modern energy services by 2030 as part of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, the minister indicated.

Though Ethiopia is aggressively developing its abundant renewable energy sources, over 50 per cent of its population is still in energy poverty as they are deprived of access to modern renewable energy, including electricity, said Messay Emana Getu, a researcher from Ethiopia Biotechnology Institute’s biosafety and climate change team.

Energy poverty in Ethiopia is manifested in a way that most of the population living in rural Ethiopia mainly uses firewood and biomass for energy sources. The poverty is significantly affecting citizens in the rural area of Ethiopia compared to the urban areas, Getu said.

The use of biomass would result in deforestation, global warming and health problems. It negatively affects the effective delivery of education and health services in the country’s rural areas, Getu added.

Nearly 86 per cent of the country’s current energy demand is met through biomass; it is by far the most widely used form of energy in Ethiopia, pointed out the 2022 Energy Outlook of Ethiopia.

Many households use biomass sources such as firewood, charcoal, animal waste and agricultural residues mainly for cooking and baking; many even use biomass for lighting, the outlook stated.

Energy poverty affects the economic development of a country as well as the lives of individuals, according to experts.

“Due to the disparity between rural and urban areas in access to energy / lighting systems, students perform differently. Those from urban areas can study any time, day or night, while students rural areas cannot afford that,” said Getu.

Moreover, energy poverty also directly impacts health, education, agriculture, job creation and human development, he added.

Lack of access, inefficient energy

Ethiopia’s major energy sector challenges are related to two main factors: Lack of access to renewable energy and inefficiencies of the existing energy service provisions, said Getu.

In urban areas and even in the capital Addis Ababa, the energy infrastructure is inefficient due to the old national grid systems, he added. 

“The efficiency problems are attributed to the poor design of electricity transmission and distribution infrastructure, to the obsolete and inefficient industrial and transport technologies and to the households’ reliance on inefficient cooking stoves and light bulbs,” Amsalu Woldie Yalew, a Junior Scientist and Fellow at the Ca Foscari University of Venice wrote in his paper on the Ethiopian energy sector.

Also read: Africa’s energy poverty: Kenya is unable to power the lives of all its citizens despite ‘having renewables’. Here is why

According to Yalew, electricity lost during transmission and distribution was estimated to be approximately 23 per cent in the 2010s, which is expected to decline but still around 14 per cent in the 2030s.

He also indicated that only about 25 per cent of electrified households use efficient bulbs. Tube lamps and compact fluorescent lamps are, respectively, 30 per cent and 70 per cent more efficient than the incandescent bulbs that are widely used in Ethiopia.

Amsalu also indicated that only 18.2 per cent of households use manufactured cooking stoves. Efficient cooking stoves could save 20 per cent-67 per cent of energy compared to traditional stoves.

Energy diversification efforts

As energy access in rural Ethiopia is very low, the Ethiopian Water and Energy Ministry has initiated alternative energy source development programmes, including the National Biogas Program of Ethiopia.

The biogas Programme started its operations in 2008, collaborating with the Directorate General for International Cooperation of the Netherlands.

The programme seeks to develop a commercially viable domestic biogas sector, providing access to clean energy at the household level through the implementation of bio-digesters, said Woli.

It also aims at substituting the use of firewood, increasing agricultural production through the application of bio-slurry (the liquid effluent from the digesters), improving living conditions of mostly women and children by reducing the workload and improving health and sanitation, improving employment opportunities and income as well as contributing to the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.

Also read: Africa’s energy poverty: Push to renewables, more players for power supply may help Madagascar’s electrification plans

Moreover, Ethiopia is planning to expand its energy sources from geothermal, wind and solar. The Ethiopian Energy Outlook of 2022 stated that the country has planned to boost its energy supplies by 25 per cent — geothermal 11 per cent, wind 9 per cent and solar 5 per cent — through its diversification programme.

Ethiopia has set an ambitious target for providing electricity to all its citizens: 65 per cent on-grid and 35 off-grids by 2025 and 96 per cent on-grid and 4 per cent off-grid by 2030, according to the Ministry of Water and Energy.

The government formulated its new National Electrification Plans (NEP and NEP 2.0) in 2017 and 2019, which strive for universal electrification by 2025 via a mix of on and off-grid electrification efforts.

Earlier in 2017, the NEP action plan stated that by 2025, 65 per cent of all households should be connected to the main grid, and 35 per cent should have access to off-grid technologies, including individual solar systems and mini-grids.

A huge chunk of electric energy for Ethiopia’s main grid comes from its hydroelectric dams. It has the potential to generate over 60,000 megawatts (MW) of electric power from hydroelectric, wind, solar and geothermal sources.

Currently, the country has approximately 4,500 MW of installed generation capacity. Some major projects, including the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), the largest hydroelectric dam in Africa, are now under construction. Ethiopia plans to exponentially increase its power generation capacity to 17,000 MW in 10 years. 

Energy transition

Tesfaye Abate, an expert working with the Ethiopian Planning and Development Ministry, said the country should transition from fossil fuels to renewable ones.

“Green energy transition — the process of shifting away from fossil fuels to renewable energy such as solar, wind, hydroelectric, geothermal, hydrogen or biomass energy — is critical to limiting global warming to the 1.5°C target aspired to in the 2015 Paris Agreement,” the expert added.

Tesfaye indicated that the country had committed its pledges by preparing National Determined Contribution, which has already been submitted to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

“Ethiopia is envisaging to reduce emissions by 68.8 per cent compared to business as usual projections by 2030, including 14 per cent reductions unconditionally committed and 54.8 per cent contingent on international support,” he said.

These interventions are implemented in agriculture, health, urban, transport, energy, water, forestry, land use and natural resource management, among other sectors, Tesfaye said.

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Part of this article appeared in the cover story of the July 1-15, 2023 print edition of Down To Earth under the headline ‘Time Africa Switched’

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