Thursday, August 23, 2012

“Shale Gas” Is Africa’s Game-Changer: Let’s Forget About Climate Change For Now

Author: Edson Charikinya

Shale gas could transform Africa into a power giant. It can provide the continent’s energy requirement now and for the longterm. Edson Charikinya looks at how this form of energy can keep the light on for a long time to come, in addition to the environmental opposition to this known hydrocarbon energy form.

Earlier this month India experienced a two-day power blackout that made international headlines. The blackout affected 600 million of India’s 1.2 billion people. It put back into focus the growing energy challenges that economic growth in developing countries brings. Africa, when compared to the rest of the developed world, is in a perpetual state of blackouts.  In recent years improvements in shale gas – natural gas-capturing technology – has led many to believe that this form of energy could be a potential game-changer in lowering the costs of access to energy. Preliminary studies show that most African countries have enough natural (shale) gas reserves to meet their growing energy needs. Natural gas holds greater promise of positively transforming the lives of many African people.

Shale gas has emerged as a cheaper and much cleaner alternative fuel to conventional fossil fuels such as crude oil and coal. Technologies have been developed that can convert natural gas to liquid motor fuel. Sasol in South Africa operates processing plants that produce 29% of South Africa’s liquid fuel requirements from natural gas. In countries with large reserves of natural gas and a heavy dependence on foreign supply of transportation fuels – China and America – natural gas is being used directly to power motor engines. Natural gas is also being used for household cooking as well as for generating electricity.

At present 95% of sub-Saharan Africa’s households rely on traditional energy sources such as wood for heating and cooking. In East Africa, 40% of the urban households have access to electricity compared with 5% rural households.  The continent has as an electrification rate of 30%, with only 14% of rural households having access to electricity. The quality of electricity supply is also not desirable, with blackouts and brownout being a common occurrence in many parts of Africa such that they never capture international headlines like in India’s case.  There are nearly 580 million people in Africa without access to electricity; this constitutes close to half of the continent’s population. These figures are quiet disappointing considering Africa has plenty of natural energy resources.

Despite possessing 10% of proven oil and natural gas reserves, the continent suffers from severe energy poverty. Little has been done in the way of investing in Africa’s electrical generation capacity. Recent increases in industrial activity on the continent have not been matched by greater investments in electricity generation in most countries. Industrial use of electricity has been given greater priority over household use. This has led to an increased blackouts as well as people relying on traditional energy sources for fuel.

World Reserves of Shale Gas, 2011
(Africa's reserves have yet to be properly quantified).
South Africa alone is estimated to have 485 trillion cubic feet of shale gas. At its current oil consumption rate, these shale gas reserves amount to 400 years worth of equivalent oil. It is most likely that many other countries in sub-Saharan Africa are sitting on similar amounts of reserves. The high exploration cost of quantifying shale gas reserves has meant that reliable estimates of Africa’s total shale gas reserves are yet to be quantified.

Though, there is strong preliminary evidence to suggest that Africa has considerable shale gas reserves. Shale gas offers a cheaper and more modern alternative energy cooking source for many African households as well as potential for increasing Africa’s power generation capacity.

Despite the many potential benefits Africa stands to gain from exploiting its shale gas reserves there are still many environmental activists strongly against continued exploitation of fossil fuels, shale gas included. The opposition – environmental activists, for the most part – would like to see Africa’s energy drive focussing more on renewable energy sources such as solar, hydropower electricity generation and wind. They argue that at present Africa’s contribution to greenhouse gas emissions is relatively small. A boom in shale gas capture and use on the continent will change all this and will do little to aid the fight on global warming. Others have expressed reservations on the fracking methods employed to capture shale gas, warning that shale gas fracking could result in pollution of precious underground water reserves. While the world explores the use of greener energy alternatives, shale gas could act as the bridge fuel towards finding more sustainable, environmentally-friendly energy options.

The reality is that Africa stands to benefit more from having access to a large supply of inexpensive, clean domestic source of energy. It will take a number of years and greater investments in research until renewable energy becomes a viable option for meeting both the industrial and household energy needs of Africa’s population. Current indications are that coal and natural gas are going to continue being the major source of global energy for some time. Africa should therefore look into exploiting its shale gas reserves in order to meet its growing energy demands.

Edson Charikinya is a Zimbabwean born Chemical Engineer based in South Africa. He is the founder and Operations Director of Innovartis Technology Systems, a Pan-African technology group ​​delivering technology solutions and services to African communities and small-to-medium sized enterprises. He holds an MSc in Chemical Engineering and is currently a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Stellenbosch.

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