A team of Chinese and Nigerian researchers spread across four universities are modeling a massive new cross-border electricity generation and transmission system connecting 12 Sub-Sahara Africa (SSA) countries as one of the fastest solutions to addressing insufficient energy access on the continent.
Humphrey Adun, one of the project’s researchers from Nigeria and a lecturer at Cyprus International University, said the team is drawn from Chrisland University in Ogun State, Nigeria, Chengdu University of Technology in China and the Imperial College in London.
If the project model becomes a reality, electricity-sufficient countries will export their surplus power plugging the deficit of their neighbors. This would then help to alleviate some of the chronic power shortages affecting countries covered by the grid including Nigeria, Mali, Niger, Chad, Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Burundi, Sudan, Mozambique and South Africa.
Similar projects, commonly referred to as electricity power pools, are operational in East, Central, West and Southern Africa but this is the first time that such a system has been conceptualized on such a geographical scale.
The super grid is complex since the countries in the coverage all have different levels of energy access, policies and funding issues.
To understand some of the project’s dynamics, I spoke with Adun.
This interview has been briefly edited for clarity and length.
NJENGA HAKEENAH: Chinese researchers contributed to the proposal for Sub-Sahara Africa’s power grid. How practical is it to create such a system?
HUMPHREY ADUN: This proposal was our concept and a joint effort between Nigerian and Chinese researchers.
While it represents a visionary approach to addressing energy challenges in Sub-Saharan Africa, several factors will determine its feasibility and implementation.
First, the feasibility of the SSA regional power grid is heavily dependent on the technological and infrastructure capabilities of the participating nations.
Establishing a regional grid would necessitate sophisticated grid technologies, energy-efficient energy storage solutions, and seamless international interconnection. Given the present state of infrastructure in most SSA nations, this would require substantial investment and development.
Second, political cooperation among participating nations is of the utmost importance.
Undertaking a project of this scale would necessitate some joint energy policies, regulations, and tariffs among all participating nations. While the concept may be appealing, it can be difficult to align multiple administrations. The SSA region can also take lessons or use the matured policies integrated with the operation of the EU super grid which passes through over 25 European countries.
NJENGA: How critical is Chinese funding for a grid on the scale and magnitude of the simulation?
ADUN: The establishment of a regional grid in SSA would unquestionably necessitate substantial financing. Although Chinese investment could cover a portion, it is likely that additional international investors and financial institutions would be required.
It is essential to ensure that the undertaking remains financially viable without burdening participating nations with unmanageable debt.
Additionally, there is the issue of energy sources. While the purpose of the super grid is to distribute renewable energy, the generation sources (solar, wind, and hydro) must be positioned strategically to ensure a steady energy supply.
Again, this would necessitate international cooperation and planning.
How will China’s new approach to funding projects in the Global South impact the super grid simulation proposal even though it’s a theoretical approach at this point?
ADUN: China’s [new] funding approach has the potential to significantly shape the proposed grid simulation presented in our work. If China places emphasis on energy and infrastructure projects, it could enhance the feasibility of the grid by integrating clean energy sources and facilitating technology transfers. However various geopolitical factors and the role of engaging stakeholders can extensively alter the dynamics of the project.
NJENGA: Has China prepped for this and now angling for the small energy projects toward making the super grid a reality? Since it is the research financier?
ADUN: China’s strategic investments through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) showcase its aspiration to play a role in the global energy infrastructure. Their extensive funding in infrastructure projects across Asia, Africa and Europe includes efforts in energy infrastructure development.
According to a 2021 report by the African Climate Foundation and Natural Resources Defense Council and The Boston University Global Development Policy (GDP) Center, China has financed and developed over 10 gigawatts of clean energy capacity across Africa at a cost of over $13 billion since 2000. Considering that a central grid is already on the cards in West Africa through the West African Power Pool (WAPP), it is possible that China will engage in such projects. Again this is speculative…
NJENGA: Is the super grid proposal only on paper or are governments in the 11 countries working to make it a reality?
ADUN: Even though the proposal originated from Nigerian and Chinese researchers, it is essential to assess the level of commitment of the grid countries’ governments.
The transition from a research proposal to a government-backed initiative would be a crucial step toward the regional grid’s actualization.
While the concept of a Sub-Saharan super grid is ambitious and bears promise, its realization is contingent on technological, financial, political, and logistical factors.
Humphrey Hugh Adun is a researcher and educator in energy systems modeling. He is an energy system and mechanical engineering Senior Lecturer at Cyprus International University. Dr. Adun also serves as an ENROADS Ambassador with Climate Interactive, USA.