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Researchers are trying to come up with sustainable energy model for small African cities

Africa is experiencing a massive flow of people into urban areas. This is happening in major urban centres such as Lagos, Accra and Dar es Salaam – but it’s also happening in less well-known, smaller, secondary cities.

The pace at which this urban growth is happening inevitably puts strain on city authorities: the supply of services and developing infrastructure is vital for human and economic development.

But the evidence base to support forward planning remains scarce for most cities. In its absence, cities run the risk of infrastructural lock-ins to systems that are unable to accommodate their growth sustainably.

Cities with high concentrations of people and economic activities are major sites of energy demand. Africa contributes very little to global climate change today, but future growth must be managed sustainably: if the emissions of developing country cities increase to a level similar to that of many western cities today, catastrophic climate change will be unavoidable.


Supporting African Municipalities in Sustainable Energy Transitions, or SAMSET, is a four-year project that commenced in 2013. Its aim was to address sustainable energy transitions in African cities. It provides practical planning and implementation support to municipalities to manage future energy planning in a sustainable manner.

The project involves six cities in western, eastern and southern Africa: Ga East and Awutu Senya East in Ghana, Kasese and Jinja in Uganda, and Cape Town and Polokwane in South Africa. Research and support organisations in each country and the UK were involved as well.

The project focused its support on secondary and smaller cities. These cities are also experiencing massive social and economic expansions, but they typically have less capacity to cope. Despite their significance as current and future sites of energy demand, they receive much less research and funding focus.

Secondary cities such as Uganda’s Kasese traditionally lack the research or funding to make sustainable energy transitions. Image: author provided.

Developing an evidence base to support planning

The first phase of the project involved developing an evidence base to support planning and future implementation of sustainable energy interventions. Locally relevant planning tools are essential: there are very few studies investigating and modelling the energy systems of African cities. (South Africa is a notable exception.)

An urban energy system refers to all the flows of different energy resources in a city, such as petrol, diesel, electricity, wood and charcoal. It records where resources are produced or imported into an area, and where they are consumed in different sectors.

Such information can help cities better understand which sectors are major consumers and identify inefficiencies. It also helps identify where opportunities for energy efficiency and new technologies may lie, especially those associated with improved economic and welfare effects.

Much of how we understand urban energy systems is based on cities in western and developed countries. But many cities in Africa challenge assumptions about economic development trajectories and spatial arrangements: these may be implicit in energy modelling approaches which are based on developed country experiences.


SAMSET modelled the urban energy systems of each of these cities using the Long-range Energy Alternatives Planning model, developed by the Stockholm Environment Institute. This model records all energy consumption and production in each sector of an economy: household, commercial, industrial and transport sectors. It is a useful planning tool because it projects the growth of energy systems until 2030 under different scenarios. This helps cities understand the future impacts of different investment and planning decisions now.

For SAMSET, universities in each country undertook primary data collection on sectoral energy demand and supply. A baseline model and range of scenarios were then collaboratively developed with local research partners and municipalities. The project aimed to develop an evidence base to serve as a tool for local decision-makers.

The point of the exercise

The project has served to introduce to city and local planners the use of energy models, and also attempted to set up the foundation for future development of energy modelling exercises and its applications. Collaborating to collect data, discuss key energy issues, and identify interventions are highly valuable to local stakeholders.

The process was instrumental in generating an understanding of energy planning. For some of municipalities, this was the first time consideration has been given to energy as a municipal function.

The modelling process acts as a strategic entry point to build interest and support for the project with municipal stakeholders. It also provides a useful platform and tool to engage around long-term planning and the implications of different actions. An example is infrastructural lock-in to emissions and energy intensive growth paths.

SAMSET is making an important knowledge contribution to the dynamics of sustainable energy transitions in African cities. Such research is of course made difficult by the data scarcity typical at a sub-national level – something which reflects the lack of financial investment to date.

The local data collection processes in this project have been vital in building capacity and generating awareness around urban energy systems. Developing new data and building knowledge of urban energy transitions in the global south is critically important. It has had a strong focus on establishing a network of both north-south and south-south practitioners to support more work in this arena.

The modelling has had to account for several distinct characteristics. These include:

  • The informal economy;
  • Own energy generation through diesel and gasoline generators;
  • The high reliance on biomass;
  • Variations in urban forms and issues such as suppressed demand for energy services.

This project has also made important methodological contributions to modelling urban energy systems in developing countries.The Conversation

Louise Tait is a researcher in the Energy Research Centre at the University of Cape Town.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.
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