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Sustainability implications of electricity outages in sub-Saharan Africa


Many with access to electricity in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) are subject to frequent outages due to insufficient generation capacities and/or poor transmission and distribution infrastructure. These outages result in increased use of backup diesel generators. We use a Monte Carlo Analysis framework to estimate changes in net air emissions, consumer costs and fossil energy consumption that result from the use of backup diesel generators in SSA. We show that reliance on backup diesel generators can lead to increased air emissions in all countries. Use of backup diesel generators also increases fossil fuel energy consumption by a factor of 1.5–1,000 compared with current grid levels throughout SSA. Finally, we estimate that the costs of generating diesel backup power are millions of dollars higher than the costs of grid electricity in all countries. These results suggest that increasing power system reliability for those with existing electricity access is a key component of meeting sustainable electricity access goals.

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Fig. 1: Mean weighted-average emissions factors for grid electricity by country in 2014.
Fig. 2: Backup electricity generation and annual change in fossil-fuel consumption.
Fig. 3: Change in annual emissions due to backup generation.
Fig. 4: Cost of backup power.

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Data availability

The datasets generated during and/or analysed in the current study are available where cited in the text or from the corresponding author on reasonable request.


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Correspondence and requests should be addressed to D. F. Funding for this work came from the Department of Engineering and Public Policy at Carnegie Mellon University. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation also provided support for this work through the Gates Millennium Scholars Program. The conclusions and recommendations in this article are the sole responsibility of the authors and may not represent the opinions of the funding sources.

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Authors and Affiliations



D.F. conducted principal analysis, interpretation of data and drafting of the manuscript. P.J. led design and conceptualization efforts of the research and collaborated in drafting the manuscript and subsequent revisions. C.S. helped in the design and conceptualization efforts of the research and collaborated in drafting the manuscript and subsequent revisions.

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Correspondence to DeVynne Farquharson.

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Supplementary Figures 1–3, Supplementary Tables 1–10, Supplementary Methods, Supplementary References 1–15

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Farquharson, D., Jaramillo, P. & Samaras, C. Sustainability implications of electricity outages in sub-Saharan Africa. Nat Sustain 1, 589–597 (2018).

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