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'Known unknowns' dog understanding of key African energy issues

12/02/14

The second high-level meeting of the Africa-EU Energy Partnership (AEEP) in Addis Ababa on 11-13 February has provided another opportunity for experts to assess how far Africa and Europe have come in reaching a set of ‘political targets’ set in 2010. The targets for 2020 provided shared goals for energy access and efficiency, energy security (including electricity interconnections and gas trade) and generation from renewables. The findings of this work by the AEEP Secretariat, whose consultant is African Energy’s parent Cross-border Information, are available in a Status Report downloadable in English and French.

Work on the Status Report has revealed severe shortfalls in the quality of data for several key African energy sectors. The AEEP report says it has the most accurate figures when it comes to electricity generation and energy security data. This is collated in an AEEP Power Project Database, listing over 2,700 generation projects, itself based on 15 years of recording and analysis of projects by African Energy and its Update tables.

In assessing the other political targets, much of the data collection and interpretation methodology remains subject to severe limitations. Constrained resources at national statistical offices, infrastructure restrictions, limited state presence in many locations, and large informal economies all serve to limit the information available and complicate data production and analysis. Reporting by national utilities and governments may leave much to be desired, but so does international reporting. CbI’s research into the origins and quality of the data currently accepted as authoritative showed that figures often came from questionable sources and could be over a decade old, reproduced time and again in reports by major institutions, such as the International Energy Agency and World Bank.

The situation appears to be improving: the global Sustainable Energy for All (SE4All) initiative, backed by the World Bank and European Commission, plans to put huge resources into data-gathering (AE 256/1). But a huge amount of work remains to be done to give an accurate picture. Information on access to clean and sustainable energy is patchy and problematic, based on a few, very incomplete datasets. There are also particular issues with transmission and distribution losses, and other energy efficiency data. Addressing this problem is high on the SE4All agenda, which seeks to give access to modern energy to another 1bn people by 2030. In private, SE4All officials accept that the level of in-depth, continent-wide surveys and research needed means that Africa may be a decade away from having more accurate data with which policy-makers can work.

There are even problems assessing data that the uninitiated might expect to be readily available: for example, weighing the European contribution to meeting the AEEP political targets. On a few measures, such as gas supply, it is relatively easy to identify the European and African contributions; but this is not the case for most other measures, where there are no centralised or independent data sets that divide out African and EU contributions to projects. The AEEP acknowledges the lack of such data, but to point to the upward trends in European financing and African government support for capital projects it has been able to draw on the annual surveys of donor and government behaviour being developed by the Infrastructure Consortium for Africa.

When it comes to statistics, policy-makers, analysts and other stakeholders may – metaphorically, at least – be working in the dark. The most apt phrase to describe Africa’s energy data poverty may, indeed, have been supplied by that apparently least empirical of politicians, former US defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld: it is a case of living with “known unknowns”.

Details of the Status Report were presented by CbI chairman Jon Marks.  A copy of his power point is available here.

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