Countries’ resilience to the COVID-19 pandemic may, in part, be dependent on whether their power supplies are adequate and reliable enough to provide critical services and support economies. It’s likely that important lessons can be learnt about the relationship between the pandemic and reliable power systems, which will be applicable to future energy planning in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. Simon Trace, programme director of the Energy and Economic Growth (EEG) research programme, funded by the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID), explains more.
In Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, a lack of access to reliable electricity affects health and wellbeing, livelihoods and economic growth on a daily basis – but it may also severely compromise developing countries’ response and resilience to the COVID-19 pandemic, both in terms of survival rates and the economic impact.
Around 840 million people across the world live without any access to electricity, and hundreds of millions more have access but often suffer frequent – and sometimes lengthy – disruptions, whether from unplanned power outages, scheduled shutdowns or voltage fluctuations. Close to 600 million people in Sub-Saharan Africa do not have access to electricity, and fewer than half (43%) of Africans have a reliable supply. More than a quarter of the world’s off-grid population live in South Asia, and millions of connected families and businesses across the region experience frequent blackouts.
Healthcare facilities in these regions also lack reliable power. Past studies suggested that on average, one in four Sub-Saharan African health facilities had no access to electricity, and just 28% of health facilities and 34% of hospitals had ‘reliable’ access. Similarly, clinics and hospitals in Asia often lack access to reliable power. Around one billion people in the region can only access health facilities with unreliable electricity, or none at all. As an example, in India, 46% of health facilities serving an estimated 580 million people lack electricity, and many more have only an unreliable supply. A survey of rural public health centres in the eastern state of Chhattisgarh suggests that 90% of health clinics experience power cuts during operational hours.
Reliability and resilience
Populations’ dependence on reliable energy is likely to be thrown into sharp relief by COVID-19, with the pandemic further highlighting the relationship between adequately functioning power systems and resilience. It may offer further evidence that access to reliable electricity is fundamental to protecting health and wellbeing, and for supporting public services, key supply chains, people’s livelihoods and countries’ economies.
Hospitals and clinics need a constant supply of reliable electricity, especially now they are facing unprecedented stress. Without reliable electricity, the healthcare equipment that’s critical for protecting life, such as ventilators and vital function monitoring apparatus, cannot operate properly (and may be damaged). Laboratory tests, x-rays and scans cannot be carried out and healthcare staff must treat patients without basic requirements such as lighting and refrigeration. And, when a vaccine for COVID-19 is eventually developed, a lack of power for cold chain and refrigeration equipment could put it out of reach for many.
Reliable power is also required to support countries’ governance and security capabilities. It’s needed to maintain key supply chains and communication and IT services, so that parts of the economy that can remain active can continue to function while social distancing and stay-at-home measures are in place. It can enable people to work at home – where that is feasible – protecting businesses, jobs and economies to some degree.
Electricity also helps people to keep up to date with the latest COVID-19 information, advice and guidelines, stay connected with friends and family and educate their children while schools are closed (African countries have started to devote dedicated radio channels to remote learning).
With access to reliable electricity, people can power household refrigerators to store food supplies and adhere to lockdown measures more strictly, potentially reducing their exposure to the virus. As an example, it’s been suggested that in Nigeria, there are about 100 million people who would struggle to comply with restrictions on movement because a lack of electricity means they’re unable to store food in fridges and need to shop frequently.
The resilience of energy systems
COVID-19 is also likely to test the resilience of Sub-Saharan Africa’s and South Asia’s already disproportionally fragile and unstable energy systems, with a wide range of factors putting them under increased pressure.
For example, contractors working on the construction or extension of power lines may face depleted workforces due to quarantines, lockdowns, social distancing measures and travel restrictions. In facilities that are already operational, generators may be forced to shut down or reduce capacity for similar reasons.
Alongside this, power generators will be facing significant reductions in demand in affected areas, with the energy requirements of major users – such as manufacturing plants, factories and mines – reducing. In India, the lockdown has reduced power demand by 20-30%, particularly from high-paying industrial and commercial consumers. A report from the International Energy Agency projects that global energy demand is set to fall 6% in 2020 – seven times the decline after the 2008 global financial crisis. Systems need to be flexible enough to cope with rapid and significant changes in demand patterns, such as reductions in commercial demands and increases in domestic ones. In addition, the collapse in oil prices is taking a toll on the African energy industry.
Meanwhile, with lockdown restrictions affecting people’s ability to work and earn a living, it’s likely that customers will be struggling to pay for electricity – impacting on utilities’ cash flows and their ability to provide a reliable service and maintain and upgrade infrastructure. And the short-term relief measures put in place by some governments, such as subsidising electricity or extending bill payment deadlines, can threaten power suppliers’ financial viability, and their operations.
For example, in India state-owned electricity distribution companies have extended the due dates for payment of electricity bills and most have waived or deferred payment of fixed charges by industrial and residential consumers. Collections of electricity distribution companies across the country have reduced by an unprecedented 80%. This is barely enough to sustain staff salaries, while leaving no scope for payments to power plants – and it’s been suggested there is a serious risk of blackouts.
It is also thought that nascent companies providing off-grid solar services could face financial hardship or even insolvency. According to a survey by SEforALL, 80 businesses running mini-grids and selling solar home systems in Africa and Asia said they expected to lose on average 27%-40% of their revenues in the coming months due to COVID-19.
A call for research on COVID-19 and power systems
It is therefore likely that COVID-19 will reveal new issues to consider in future approaches to energy system planning, operation and maintenance – whether they relate to better understanding of the role reliable power plays in underpinning societies’ resilience to pandemics or the impact global health crises has on the resilience of power systems themselves.
EEG is currently commissioning applied research projects that aim to shed light on the relationship between COVID-19 and power systems in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. We are inviting research proposals that explore the interdependencies between the resilience of populations and the resilience of power systems to large-scale health crises such as COVID-19, and that propose policy lessons for future energy system planning.