Why Obama is spending billions on clean energy to ‘Power Africa’

The Obama administration is pushing green energy in Africa, hoping the continent will bypass coal on its road to development. But some say it's not realistic – or ethical – to expect emerging economies to sidestep fossil fuels.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
President Obama speaks at the US Africa Leaders Summit in Washington, D.C. this week. The summit brought together leaders from across Africa, and increased energy production was a major topic.

Can a developing continent leapfrog dirtier fuels on its way to providing electricity for 600 million inhabitants without it?

The Obama administration hopes Africa can, and is spending billions to support access to cleaner energy on the continent. But not everybody is convinced the administration’s “Power Africa” plan – with its emphasis on intermittent resources like wind and solar – is an effective way to combat energy poverty.  

If successful, Africa could serve as an example of how developing populations can boost quality of life without relying on the carbon-heavy coal that fueled growth in the industrialized world. Many parts of rural Africa are naturally well-equipped for a power grid that is more decentralized and renewable-based than Europe’s or North America’s.

If, on the other hand, African nations and other emerging economies follow their predecessors into fossil fuel-based economies, there would be little hope of reining in the runaway global emissions of heat-trapping gases that cause climate change.    

As they look to the future, African nations will have to strike a balance between global climate concerns and local economic prosperity.

“We cannot meet the continent’s needs with just green energy,” says Mwangi Kimenyi, director of the Africa Growth Initiative at the Brookings Institution, a Washington-based think tank.

“The fact that the US and some investors are focusing on clean energy should not preclude other investors from going toward oil, coal, and other energy,” Mr. Kimenyi says in a telephone interview Thursday.

At this week’s US-Africa Leaders Summit in Washington, President Obama pledged an additional $300 million to expand energy access throughout sub-Saharan Africa. That’s on top of a $7 billion Power Africa initiative Mr. Obama unveiled last summer. The aim? Double access to electricity in six African countries, powering 60 million homes and businesses.

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Power Africa has already garnered $26 billion in commitments from public and private investors, according to the White House, with hopes of adding 30,000 megawatts of capacity on the continent. It’s all a part of Obama’s broader climate agenda, and a significant chunk of energy support will funnel into renewables.

“Power Africa is helping drive a clean energy revolution that takes advantage of Africa’s abundant wind, solar, geothermal, and hydropower resources,” wrote John Podesta, counselor to the president, in a blog post Tuesday.  

That's not to say US investment is exclusively in renewables, though. General Electric – a key participant in the US Africa initiative – has also invested in aeroderivative gas turbines and rail infrastructure. Monday, GE announced it will invest $2 billion in energy access, worker skills, and infrastructure by 2018.

The administration hopes Africa can develop and industrialize without relying heavily on carbon-intensive coal – the power source that fueled industrialization in the US and elsewhere, but is also a major contributor to global warming.  

Skeptics of Obama’s clean energy agenda say it’s not feasible – or even ethical – to expect Africa to altogether leapfrog coal, which is a relatively cheap and abundant fuel for power plants.

“[T]he president’s newest quest to bring his costly climate agenda onto the global scale will quash any opportunity for meaningful economic prosperity in Africa,” said Mike Duncan, president and CEO of American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, in a statement Tuesday.

World Bank President Jim Yong Kim said at the summit that the bank would “try to avoid” investing in coal, but indicated the World Bank may invest in coal projects to meet Africa’s “demand for access to power.” Last year, the World Bank announced that it would stop supporting coal-intensive projects, except in rare cases.

“We are very sensitive to the idea that Africa deserves to have power,” Dr. Kim said, according to Bloomberg, signaling it’s possible the bank would give limited support to coal – sometimes seen as a more reliable power source than renewables.

“There’s never been a country that has developed with intermittent power,” Kim said.

Such a mentality is stuck in the 20th century, environmental groups contend, and does not take into account the possibilities of 21st-century innovation. Centralized grids relying on coal-fired power are a thing of the past, according to Justin Guay, associate director for the international program at the Sierra Club.

Guay says it’s conceivable that renewables could leapfrog coal on the continent, just as cell phones have spread through parts of Africa ahead of landline telephones.

“It’s ironic that people like Dr. Kim at the World Bank can be taken seriously when they say the equivalent of ‘landlines for all,’ in an age where mobile phones have 100 percent leapfrogged the landline,” Guay says in a telephone interview Thursday.

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