By Malee Oot July 7, 2013
Above: Ain Beni Mathar Integrated Combined Cycle Thermo-Solar Power Plant. photo credit: World Bank Photo Collection
On a recent trip to Africa, President Obama announced his new energy initiative called Power Africa. The announcement came on June 30 while the president was visiting South Africa, a nation almost entirely reliant on coal-sourced energy. The initiative addresses energy poverty in Africa, where more than 85% of the rural population of sub-Saharan Africa lacks access to electricity. The initiative will include substantial private sector investment and will initially work with partner countries across sub-Saharan Africa. The United States has committed $7 Billion to Power Africa over the next five years.
The president’s announcement in South Africa followed two speeches in which he highlighted the need for the United States to take more significant action to mitigate the impacts of global climate change. During a climate change speech at Georgetown University in late June he called for the need to “help developing nations leap-frog dirty energy technologies and reduce dangerous emissions.”
According to a White House fact sheet, Power Africa will aim increase access to electricity by at least 20% in sub-Saharan Africa by developing on-grid, mini-grid, and off-grid energy sources. The White House has stated the initiative will add “more than 10,000 megawatts of cleaner, more efficient electricity generation capacity.” Power Africa will aid in the development of sustainable energy sources in Africa—including geothermal, wind, solar, and hydro but will also continue to tap natural gas and oil reserves on the continent.
While recognizing the vast need to addressing energy poverty in Sub-Saharan Africa, the president’s plan has been questioned for its very limited development of off-grid and renewable energy solutions. Critics have questioned the lack of funding for off-grid solutions, which have greater potential for success in Africa as a result of a lack of existing infrastructure in many rural areas. Advocates for greater funding for renewables in Africa have cited success of cell phone coverage in rural Africa - where construction of cell phone towers compensated for an absence of communication infrastructure - and there are now more cell phones users in Africa than in all of North America. Sustainable energy supporters expect that like cell phones, individual, small-scale renewable energy units could have long-term success in Sub-Saharan Africa.
Some of the Power Africa funding will be slated specifically for renewables. Two partners in the initiative, the United States Trade and Development Agency and the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC) have pledged up to $20 million in grants for development of renewables. OPIC has additionally committed to an emissions cap on all energy projects the corporation funds.
However, critics maintain Power Africa is just open season for big corporations, and a chance to exploit the continent. Arguably the greatest beneficiary of the Power Africa Initiative will be General Electric, who will receive access to natural resources in Ghana and Tanzania, in addition to highly profitable energy deals. Of the 10,000 megawatts (MW) of electricity Power Africa aims to provide, nearly 5,000 MW will be generated by projects undertaken by General Electric.
Writer for AllAfrica.com, Alexander O’Riodan, is more skeptical about the sudden impetus for diverting energy related funding to Africa, stating in a recent article, “[w]ith Western anxiety about the rising influence of China and other emerging economies dominating the attention of decision makers, the West has seen a unique opportunity to divert aid to essentially subsidize their own investment in Africa and particularly around the globally most important geo-political asset of energy.”
CEO of General Electric Jeff Immelt accompanied President Obama on his most recent trip to Africa. Despite Africa’s tremendous potential for development of renewables, it appears the major focus of the initiative will indeed be the development of profitable energy deals for U.S. corporations. O’Riodan’s cynicism is well founded, “Western interest in Africa’s energy sector is about a lot more than getting light-bulbs into African households.”