February 22, 2021
What the Texas power outages can teach us about Africa’s power future
By Katie Auth, Todd Moss

The historic cold snap that led to widespread power outages across Texas was tragic and continues to be a dangerous situation for the millions affected. It was also a shock to a state that is synonymous with energy. That single state produces 41% of America’s oil, 25% of its marketed natural gas, and 28% of its wind-power. Houston, its biggest city, proudly claims to be the Energy Capital of the World. The state’s power system is so large that it has its own power grid, separate from the rest of the country. While the Texas energy crisis will generate lots of after-action debate of what really went wrong (and, perhaps, a little humility?) it’s not too early to draw a few Texas-sized lessons for another region facing systematic energy challenges: sub-Saharan Africa.

  1. Modern economies require lots of reliable energy. Texas has 125 GW of installed electricity generation capacity for about 30 million people. Ghana has about the same number of people but only 4 GW. Many countries have far less. In order to grow their economies and support modern lifestyles, they all need far more electricity.
  2. Tech wars are dumb. There’s been plenty of sniping about frozen wind turbines versus frozen gas lines. It’s still too early to be definitive, but the early signs point to failures across nearly all technologies: gas, coal, wind, and solar all underperformed. Even ultra-resilient nuclear power was affected by under-winterized turbines not built to operate in extreme cold. If anything, the early hot takes mainly reveal commentators’ tech priors. (Maybe we’re revealing our technology agnosticism?) The same applies to African policymakers and western financiers: they should avoid a myopic and ex ante focus on favorite solutions. The various, very different markets across Africa will require very different — and diverse — generation mixes.
  3. What’s smart is building resilient systems. More important than stand-alone generation choices is how all the various pieces fit together to provide low-cost reliable power to meet diverse customer needs and enable broader development goals. Kenya’s energy future, and its ability to successfully integrate various energy sources, depends mostly on the hard and soft grid infrastructure it chooses to build and the combination of solutions it deploys in tandem. If donors want to support resiliency, they need to pay more attention to African plans and priorities, and think more about systems — not the benefits of financing one more wind farm or power plant.
  4. Climate change is (probably) making this even more urgent. While it’s impossible to show direct causality from climate change to any one arctic freeze, wildfire, heat wave, or hurricane, it appears likely that we can expect more extreme weather events. This makes systemic resilience even more pressing.
  5. Open markets and data make a positive difference. While Texas’ current troubles transcend any one specific problem, it would all be far worse without its open and data-rich ecosystem. The Texas grid provides a wealth of publicly available real time data on the market, grid performance, and clear rules. That has helped the state become a leader in wind and led to some of the country’s most competitively-priced power. Unfortunately, most African power markets are data deserts. Most system operators struggle to monitor and respond to instability and outages without real-time data on grid performance. And neither market actors nor the public can see even basic provisions in the electricity contracts signed on their behalf. Governments and their financiers should be investing more in data and promoting contract transparency, including eventual disclosure of power purchase agreements.
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