Access to electricity: the cornerstone of development in Africa

ABB’s new “micro-substation”, based on ABB’s Service Station Voltage Transformer (SSVT) technology, is allowing local energy utilities to make electricity available for use in rural villages.

More than 620 million people in sub-Saharan Africa (two-thirds of the population) have no access to electricity, severely hampering their prospects.

If we woke up tomorrow to a world without access to the Internet for a few hours we would feel incomplete and severely limited as we are so dependent on it. However, a life without electricity denies basic social and economic development. Electricity is critical in powering water supplies, strengthening health care services, developing communications, improving education. Access to power catalyzes economic development in rural areas and creates more jobs and new industries.

According to the Africa Energy Outlook, more than 620 million people in sub-Saharan Africa (two-thirds of the population) have no access to electricity, severely hampering their prospects. Even urban centers regularly contend with an unreliable power supply. While the rapid take-up of low-cost digital products and services promises to free the entrepreneurial drive of Africa’s population, a durable path to a more prosperous future has to include a solution to the continent’s energy problem.

ABB is providing some of the answers with a diverse portfolio of innovative power technology that can help to broaden access to reliable, sustainable energy, ensuring that the development of African countries is sustainable and built on solid foundations.

For instance, the Sebenza substation in Johannesburg will help deliver the 30 percent additional electricity expected to be brought in to the grid and strengthen reliability and stability. The installation includes 38 bays of 132 kilovolt (kV) gas-insulated switchgear (GIS) from ABB, the largest installation of GIS at this voltage level to be commissioned in Africa.

The Caprivi Link interconnects the electricity grids in Namibia and Zambia to ensure reliable power transfer between the eastern and western regions of the Southern African Power Pool. The 350 kV, 300 MW transmission system comprises a 950-km long overhead line linking the Zambezi converter station in Namibia’s Caprivi region near the Zambian border with the Gerus converter station in central Namibia. ABB’s HVDC Light technology helps to stabilize these weak power networks and supply power to the Caprivi region if normal supplies from Zambia are disrupted.

Africa is rich in renewable power sources, often in remote locations, far from busy consumption centers. Long distance HVDC connections which allow vast amounts of electricity to be sent over very long distances with low losses, present an ideal technology that will become increasingly important as Africa develops its power infrastructure.

Microgrid technology is another example of a solution future-proofed for the wider adoption of renewables. Microgrids are located close to the communities they serve and can either operate as small, stand-alone grids for isolated regions or partially grid connected solutions, providing access to electricity, integrating renewables and facilitating reliable power supplies. In the Kenyan capital Nairobi, ABB is installing a microgrid for the International Committee of the Red Cross to power its largest logistics hub in the region, delivering reliable power in an area that frequently faces power outages and power quality issues. Microgrids are likely to be a critical piece of the smarter energy future both in Africa and across the world.

ABB has come up with an innovative solution that taps into existing high voltage transmission lines located in the vicinity and steps down the voltage level to provide electricity to small communities living nearby, who had high voltage lines running by them but had no access to electricity as conventional substations would not be economically viable for such small power loads. ABB has installed a micro substation in seven rural farming villages in the Southern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) to bring affordable electricity to more than 5,000 people whose lives have been transformed. The villages have become local hubs, with thriving markets, medical centers and street lighting contributing to increased safety and security after dark. With over 80 percent of the population of DRC still living without electricity, such solutions bring hope and promise of a brighter future.

While technology is helping to provide much needed access to electricity, making it easier for people to live safely, study and find work, it is equally important to develop the skill base in the continent and develop self-sufficiency in key areas like electrical engineering. Keeping this goal in mind, in Zambia, ABB is working to ensure that student engineers in the country have the skills needed to help run and maintain the country’s power grid. As part of this initiative, ABB has provided a training substation, hosted by the University of Zambia, which is used by the students during a 2 year program that takes them to key ABB locations. Such programs are designed to encourage local talent to play a part in the infrastructure and economic development, of their countries, underpinned by the vision of providing access to electricity for all of Africa.

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About the author

Tobias Becker

I'm Senior Vice President and Head of ABB's Africa Program
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