Power Africa: the ethics of electrification

The face of aid is changing; However, when energy is involved, sustainable solutions remain as elusive as ever. June Sun questions U.s. plans to power Sub-Saharan Africa with renewable energy while the richest country in the world continues to enjoy the dirty benefits of coal.


Power to the city

Sunset over Johannesburg, South Africa: one Sub-Saharan country that has benefitted greatly from electrification. © J Endres/Creative Commons

Power Africa, a U.S. government initiative, was announced by Barack Obama in June 2013. Its aim is to double the number of people with access to power in Sub-Saharan Africa, and has six initial partners: Kenya, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Ghana, and Liberia. It has the support of a number of U.S. government bodies, including USAID and the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC), the U.S. development finance institution.

Supporters of the initiative have argued that electrical power – or the lack of it – is the single greatest obstacle to Africa’s development. 70 percent of the population of Sub-Saharan Africa lack electricity. The costs of this are enormous. An estimated 3.5 million premature deaths occur every year due to health risks from burning solid fuels. The time available each day for work and study is limited by natural light and there are obvious limitations on economic growth. Even something as basic as keeping food fresh is impossible.

Efforts such as Power Africa are thus incredibly important. The scheme has generally been lauded as innovating on traditional humanitarian aid, by encouraging private sector investment in the continent’s energy sector. Yet, despite all the positive press surrounding the initiative, it fails to recognise the dirty side of the electrification issue.

The USAID website says Power Africa will unlock the ‘substantial wind, solar, hydropower, natural gas, and geothermal resources in the region to enhance energy security, decrease poverty, and advance economic growth’.What energy source is missing from this list? The C-word of environmentalism –coal.

Thermo-solar power plant

Can Power Africa countries expect to see new thermo-solar plants such as this one in Morocco? © Dana Smiley, World Bank/Creative Commons

OPIC has pledged $1.5 billion over the next five years to finance energy projects in Sub-Saharan Africa. Yet there is an explicit policy capping the total greenhouse gas emissions in OPIC’s overall portfolio, meaning that it will only dedicate a small portion of its investments to natural gas (only two out of 40 projects in the past five years), and will most certainly not even touch coal.

Let me be clear: I am not a promoter of fossil fuels. My own family lives in China, where the impact of electrification through coal has created unprecedented environmental damage. As this recent National Geographic article says, coal is the ‘dirtiest, most lethal energy source we have’, and its externalities have been linked to an estimated 1.2 million deaths a year.

But let’s not forget that it was this very fuel that drove the industrialisation of the global North in the nineteenth century. China is going through that process right now, with 80 percent of the recent 13-fold increase in electrification on the back of coal. In South Africa, the most successful case of electrification in Sub-Saharan Africa, again 93 percent of electricity is derived from coal.

The costs of pollution are not news to anyone, and have to be borne globally. But what differentiates power provision in Sub-Saharan Africa from that of developed nations is the urgency with which electricity is needed by the 600 million Africans without it. There is no point denying that only fossil fuels can provide the speed and scale to match this need. How is it fair that those countries whose extortionate wealth continues to depend on these same methods of energy production can turn around and dictate the way forward for those left behind, under the banner of responsible consumption?

In 2011, one of the largest American power utilities, American Electric Power, shelved its most ambitious carbon storage project to date, because the political climate in Washington DC was not conducive to investment in cleaner coal. The simple explanation here is still that as dirty as coal is, it keeps the lights on for cheap, and American politicians know this. Keeping in mind that in 2012, 37 percent of American electricity is derived from coal, compared to 12 percent from renewables, it seems hypocritical that OPIC is now going ahead with electrification plans for six Power Africa partner nations without a single mention of coal. Perhaps the U.S. should allow clean energy to climb higher on its own policy agenda before projecting it as universal truth for those with fewer resources?

TECO Power station

A coal-fired power plant in Florida, US. © David Basanta/Creative Commons

In an ideal world, coal would indeed be a fuel of the past. But it remains the cheapest and fastest way to generate electricity for large populations. In addition, carbon storage, although difficult, is a very real way to limit the emissions of coal. Other alternatives also exist. For example, a paper from the Center for Global Development has suggested that OPIC invest more in natural gas projects, which would give 60 million additional people access to electricity than according to the current renewables-heavy investments.

What doesn’t change, however, is the definite trade-off between a clean future, and a near future. If Power Africa wants to establish itself as an initiative of genuine innovation, it needs to address all avenues of electrification, and every dirty bit of baggage that comes with it.


The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.


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