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Africa: The future of electricity

The following article, published in the November-December 2015 NewsNotes, was written by John Martinez, a graduate student at George Mason University and intern with the MOGC’s Faith-Economy-Ecology project.

On October 8 the Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved the Electrify Africa Act (EAA), legislation that aims to bring 20,000 additional megawatts of power to sub-Saharan Africa by 2020. Africa’s population is growing at a tremendous rate, and is estimated to need as much power in 2040 as India and Latin America combined did in 2010. The EAA has been touted as a public-private partnership that would spur private sector investment in African infrastructure, not only bringing power but also opening the doors to all of the advances in industry, technology, and quality of life that depend upon consistent electrical access.

More than 600 million people in sub-Saharan Africa have little to no access to electricity. Those who do have access to existing electrical grid infrastructure must contend with spotty to nonexistent service. In Tanzania, electricity rationing has become commonplace as hydroelectric power plants have had to cut generation due to lack of water in reservoirs. Bringing consistency to existing grids and expanding access is of vital importance to African development. Electricity often brings better healthcare, better access to knowledge and information, more entrepreneurial opportunities, labor-saving technology, and the chance to participate in the 21st century economy and social space. However, the EAA is not a perfect piece of legislation, and its design raises some concerns.

First, the EAA lacks goals and accountability measures designed to protect the poorest Africans and those who could most benefit from affordable power. The act focuses on sheer increases in power generation and infrastructure development, reforms of power production and pricing, and regulatory reforms to support long-term market-based power generation. If relatively prosperous and wealthy urban centers disproportionately receive infrastructure development, unrest will likely follow; an equitable distribution of electricity is important to bring stability and prosperity to all of the people who for now do without.

Second, the EAA is an “all of the above” approach to energy generation. While green and renewable energy development will play a role in EAA implementation, the door is left open to the expansion of coal and gas powered plants. The bulk of the bill focuses on business concerns and stimulating private development of these markets. This is perhaps one of the greatest problems with the EAA – it is a missed opportunity of significance, both practically and symbolically. 

Africa will see significant population growth and development in the 21st century. This presents an opportunity to build with an eye toward a more sustainable future. The fact that fossil fuel energy is considered a key component in the EAA is an example of how short-term immediacy takes precedence over long-term sustainability.

Unfortunately, the EAA does not fully embrace the responsibility of wealthier nations to assist poorer nations in their efforts to provide the sustainable and renewable energy sources that our world desperately needs.