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Africa’s energy poverty, as seen from space

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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As we have seen many times before, viewing Earth from space can tell us a lot about the planet we inhabit. Seen from space and at night, and we can learn even more.

Take a look at the image below. What do you see? Can you make out the mark of civilization, the tell-tale glow of lights from cities and villages?

Does it look sparser than you expect? It’s not because the continent of Africa is devoid of people. It’s because the gift of energy services hasn’t reached many of the billion-plus residents. It’s what is called “energy poverty”, that is, a lack of access to what many of consider to be the common element of modern living: electricity.

This image is based on satellite imagery captured by the Suomi NPP satellite, a collaboration between NASA and NOAA. Dr. Bob Raynolds and Dr. Ka Chun Yu of the Denver Museum of Nature & Science and Worldviews Network showed this image during their presentation at the Aspen Ideas Festival called “Fire and Lights: Mankind Illuminating the Cosmos”.

Inside the Buckminster Fuller Planetarium, a 34-foot diameter dome in the heart of the Aspen Institute campus, David McConville of the The Elumenati set up a projector in the center of the dome. Think Prometheus’ futurist projectors, minus the space suits.

With Yu at the helm of the computer – our view of the planet starts as we zip around from continent to continent. Dr. Raynolds narrates our journey around the planet and explains the origin of these datasets: initially, the U.S. government started acquiring images of the Earth at night to trace illicit rocket trails from rogue nations and bad actors. Now, the images serve a much more benign purpose: viewing mankind’s lightprint, as Dr. Raynolds puts it – on the Earth.

Seeing an image like the one above makes me wonder: what will it take to bring electricity to nearly 600 million people living in sub-Saharan Africa? What new power plants will be built to supply that energy, and what new industries will sprout up as a result of Africa emerging from energy poverty?

Compare the image above to one of the United States, and the disparity is even more striking.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates that in addition to countries in Africa, all developing countries – 1.3 billion people – lack adequate access to electricity services. An investment of around $1 trillion is needed to achieve universal energy access in the coming decades, according to the IEA.

Until then, darkness.

David Wogan About the Author: An engineer and policy researcher who writes about energy, technology, and policy - and everything in between. Based in Austin, Texas. Comments? Follow on Twitter @davidwogan.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. M Tucker 5:19 pm 06/28/2013

    In the second decade of the 21st century the Dark Continent is still mostly dark.

    Before this name attracts a lot of angry remarks please remember your history. Africa was called the Dark Continent in the 19th century mostly by Europeans. Please refer to the 1878 book “Through the Dark Continent” by Sir Henry Morton Stanley (of “Doctor Livingstone I presume?” fame). So called because it was largely unknown (and unmapped) to the western world.

    The major lights are primarily showing up in Egypt, Nigeria, and S Africa. Several large cities are indicated by isolated bright dots but one rather large city seems to be completely dark. The nation of Somalia on the eastern coast is marked by the distinctive horn that juts up into the Gulf of Aden. . If you look along the coast moving south from the Horn of Africa about 1 ½ inches on the map you will see it is completely dark. But a city of about 5 to 6 million people, Mogadishu, is there. 5 to 6 million people all living in one city almost entirely without electricity.

    Many nations derive electricity by hydroelectric projects. If you lack a suitable river and investment you will not have much in the way of electricity. Building a cheap coal plant is not really an option if you must import coal. Transportation infrastructure is extremely poor to nonexistent in much of Africa so the constant need for coal to fuel the plant would be hard to supply. The nations that still need electric infrastructure will probably have to go with wind or solar but it is hard to construct and maintain these if you are a poor nation with a largely uneducated and untrained population.

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  2. 2. adambrinckerhoff 7:06 pm 06/28/2013

    This is a very impactful reminder from space technology of how far we still have to come. At SpaceUnited, we’re using SHIM-1 to give satellite imagery to relief organizations to help solve this problem. Come help us make it happen!

    Adam Brinckerhoff
    Development Engineer

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  3. 3. Graydon 9:16 pm 06/28/2013

    or, another words, they don’t waste electricity as much as other continents? I wish North America looked like that at night, so I could actually see the night sky!

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  4. 4. joshuagenes 9:22 pm 06/28/2013

    With Africa being dark, at least you can see the stars at night. That’s got to be worth something.

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  5. 5. dbtinc 8:53 am 06/29/2013

    If you are still living in the 17th century you don’t need electricity.

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  6. 6. anumakonda 2:30 pm 06/29/2013

    Alarming situation about energy in Africa. 1.3 billion people – lack adequate access to electricity services – what a shame. Nations spend billions of Dollars on War. If the same can be spent on creating energy,There can’t be dark continents!
    Dr.A.Jagadeesh Nellore(AP),India

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  7. 7. PTripp 12:54 pm 07/1/2013

    I agree that Africa needs to be ‘energized’ and it must be done smartly. I even support Obama borrowing or printing about $7B to kickstart that process, though only in Kenya and a few other countries. Fortunately several large US, EU, and multinational corporations are also helping this effort.

    Funny SA runs this two days before Obama’s ‘landmark speech’ announcing ‘his’ initiative, the same time his media machine starts talking it up, squelching reports of the protests by thousands of people that have sprung up wherever he’s gone…. Draw your own conclusions on that. I do support the project regardless of who’s idea it was and who is really behind it.

    If it’s to succeed at all, it can only happen in a country with a stable government that can maintain and protect the new infrastructure. It won’t work in a state of anarchy like Somalia and many others. If I lived in Mogadishu and could afford to keep my lights on all night long, it might not be a very smart thing to do.

    There isn’t a Las Vegas Strip or Times Square to attract the kind of nightlife that would show up from space. There are no highways that are lit up all night.

    Besides, on the right side of the photo wouldn’t it be almost dawn? I’d expect to see more lights on in the left, evening, side of the picture. In the center of the picture it would be roughly 2AM.

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  8. 8. DanSchultz 12:07 am 07/6/2013

    Nighttime sky illumination is a symptom of gross energy waste, not a sign of progress. We should be working for a world where everybody has electricity, but all of the continents are as dark as Africa is now when viewed from space.

    >”Besides, on the right side of the photo wouldn’t it be almost dawn? I’d expect to see more lights on in the left, evening, side of the picture. In the center of the picture it would be roughly 2AM.”

    The street lights stay on all night. Very little of this wasted light comes from residential interior lighting.

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