The outbreak of COVID-19 is changing the world drastically as activities have slowed down and movements have been restricted globally affecting economies, health systems, education and social life especially in least developed countries that have existing weaknesses before the outbreak. Billions of people, confined in their homes, mainly rely on electricity to be able to survive and be productive. In Sub-Saharan Africa, about 840 million people have no access to electricity despite the fact that people without electricity decreased from 1 billion in 2017. Though the world suffers from an economic backlash, the energy sector still remains relevant in fighting this global crisis.
Why is renewable energy important for Africa during COVID-19?
As COVID-19 cases grow in Africa, a lack of energy security is apparent in hospitals which rely on constant electricity supply for facilities like ventilators. If hospitals and local communities don't have access to power, this could magnify the crisis and significantly slow the global recovery. Health workers may need to treat patients with hospital equipment that rely on electricity and only 28% of the healthcare facilities benefit from reliable electricity in Africa.
According to Damilola Ogunbiyi, CEO of Sustainable Energy for All, off-grid decentralized power can answer the challenges that come with the outbreak for many vulnerable communities, providing access to adequate healthcare. More importantly, electricity is a necessity in controlling the pandemic in general - from powering health facilities, to distance learning, communication, public education through media, news, teleworking, shopping and to connect with people while maintaining social distancing. Therefore, ensuring energy access can hasten the control of the COVID-19 in Africa.
Moreover, now that schools have closed, continuity in education is very relevant with access to electricity playing a critical role in education. According to UNESCO, 189 countries have implemented local closures impacting about 90% of the world’s student population. Whereas school closures seem to be an effective measure in enforcing social distancing, extended closures tend to have a disproportionately negative impact on the most vulnerable and rural students who have less or no access to electricity presenting fewer opportunities for learning at home. Data from UNESCO institute for Statistics show that, children in poorer regions do not have access to remote learning facilities like that of the urban children. The most impoverished children and those living in rural communities far less likely to enjoy a home environment that stimulates their learning. Some 826 million students confined at home due to COVID-19, do not have access to household computer and 43% have no internet access at home, during this period when digital learning is used to ensure continuity in education in many countries. In Low income countries, about 89% of learners do not have access to household computers and 82% have no internet access.
Coupled with pre-existing power fluctuations and cuts, Sub-Saharan African countries have less prior experience to distance learning or digital education especially for rural communities. One obstacle attached to distance learning in this region is the lack of access to electricity.
“We are working with countries to assure the continuity of learning for all, especially disadvantaged children and youth who tend to be the hardest hit by school closures,” said UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay.
To ensure that distance education is effective and consistent, there must be uninterrupted power supply to all households. Renewable energy can be an alternative for power supply due to the gradual decrease in coal and other non-renewable energy sources. Africa is rich in renewable energy sources which is affordable and easily accessible.
What actions are taken by governments and private companies?
With the economic strain from the outbreak, many companies that provide clean off-grid electricity to the poor in developing countries are searching for ways to remain effective and keep life-saving power through these trying times. Governments are also making efforts to push renewable energy as part of both a response to and recovery from the corona pandemic. The International Renewable Energy Agency (IREA) and the African Union Commission agreed to cooperate on projects such as helping rural health centers and communities deal with COVID-19 by using renewable power to run medical services. In Ghana for instance, the government decided to take up the full cost of electricity for the poorest people and 50% reduction in cost for three months for the remaining people who don’t fall under low income citizens.
With more than 15 million primary and secondary students at home in Kenya, the Ministry of Education announced it would broadcast lessons up to eight hours daily through dedicated radio and television channels. Aside governmental efforts to help provide electricity for rural communities, Solar companies like Azuri Technologies meet the rising challenge, by providing electricity for some communities in Kenya to adapt to learning in challenging times and supports learners physically displaced from schools. Azuri has been operating in sub-Saharan Africa since 2012 with presence in Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia and Nigeria. The company’s solar-powered satellite Television is helping rural children across Kenya to access the new education channels, ensuring these communities are equally benefiting from the national initiative for digital education as other students in urban areas, connected by the grid. Azuri-powered off-grid households can also access learning through Radio “Taifa”, with lessons broadcast throughout the day from Monday to Friday. Families have testified that they are able to also stay up to date with the news and information by the government, and more importantly, their children can continue their studies, with the solar TV they can watch and learn as though they were in school.
“Azuri is committed to supporting off-grid households through this challenging time and we want to do all we can to ensure that children in rural Kenya are not left behind in terms of learning progress due to the crisis facing the nation and the world.” says Azuri CEO Simon Bransfield-Garth.
What should policy makers do in the future regarding electricity?
The emergence of COVID-19 emphasizes the value of electricity, which is the basis for the response to this pandemic. It also reveals insights about the future of electricity, and what policy makers need to do in order to ensure that electricity remains reliable even as they are transformed by the rise of clean energy technologies. In times, we can manage without many things, but we can’t manage without electricity.
For developing and least developed countries that were already facing major challenges in energy, health and education before COVID-19, the effects of the pandemic will be felt more. Policy makers need to prioritize energy solutions to power clinics and front-line medical services as well as low-income household and rural communities. Renewable energy can provide reliable, uninterrupted and sufficient power to ensure continuous and equal educational opportunities and sustainable economic recovery in Africa where clean energy sources are in abundance. All in good time, there is an assurance of a smooth transition to clean energy and achieving Sustainable Development Goals on Energy (SDG7) which is to ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all.
Experts view these energy solutions as an investment into clean and sustainable energy infrastructure of the future for countries that that deploy renewable energy solutions particularly in these crucial times.