Planned increases in generation capacity have been expected to bridge the gap, but investments have been hindered by a range of issues: electricity tariffs that do not reflect costs; poor project preparation; lack of standardised power purchase agreements; and inadequate policy, regulatory and institutional frameworks. Meanwhile, 68% of residents in member states of the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) remain without access to electricity. In addition, the region’s energy mix remains dominated by coal, the main source of electricity used in the region’s dominant economy, South Africa.

Solar cell charging a battery in Lukolela, Democratic Republic of Congo. Image credit: Ollivier Girard/CIFOR via Flickr

There is an urgent need to tap into the region’s vast renewable energy potential, to diversify the power mix and thus increase electricity access and ensure the security and reliability of the supply. On the one hand, regional cooperation and integration in power sector planning and development – for example, through the Southern African Power Pool – present an opportunity for effectively exploiting and managing the region’s abundant yet climate-vulnerable hydropower resources to overcome the present energy crisis. Even within the SADC it is widely acknowledged that “investment in electricity infrastructure has sadly lagged far behind regional demand, necessitating greater regional cooperation to share the available power”.

On the other hand, decentralised energy solutions – such as mini- and micro-grids – can be a valuable complement to grid-based electrification, particularly in rural areas where grid extension is technically or financially unviable. Both on-grid and off-grid solutions are vital if the universal energy access target set out in Sustainable Development Goal 7 is to be met.

This paper identifies how centralised and decentralised approaches might support development of a secure low-carbon energy infrastructure in Southern Africa to meet increased demand and ensure universal energy access. It sets out the energy challenges facing the SADC region, highlights the political economy challenges in achieving greater regional cooperation in the power sector, and presents opportunities for catalysing decentralised energy systems.

This report is based on research undertaken for the project Powering Africa: Unlocking Opportunities for Energy and Water Development in Southern Africa, funded by Sida.