5 Questions about Electrify Africa and the environment

ONE is advocating a dramatic increase in modern energy access in sub-Saharan Africa because African leaders, business owners, hospital workers, teachers and countless ordinary citizens say that reliable electricity is one of their most urgent needs.

In sub-Saharan Africa, 7 out of 10 people – that’s 589 million citizens – lack even the most basic electricity. This severely hampers life-saving hospital services, job and educational opportunities, and the safety and security of women and girls.

That’s why we’re excited about President Obama’s Power Africa initiative and Congress’ bipartisan bill, the Electrify Africa Act. Among other things, both plans call for the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC) to mobilize private capital to help solve the critical challenge of energy poverty.

OPIC is well-positioned to help increase modern energy access in Africa without putting any significant burden on the American taxpayer. But to be successful, ONE believes it needs to be strengthened in two ways.

First, the agency needs added staffing resources to expand the number of projects it could catalyze. Second, and equally important, we believe narrow changes should be made to the policy that currently prevents OPIC from increasing investments in non-renewable technologies like natural gas, which are needed to meet the electricity needs of the poorest and least carbon-emitting countries in Africa.

As the global community comes together to address the crisis of energy access in Africa, questions have naturally been raised about the environmental impact of expanding modern energy access for hundreds of millions of people. Here are some questions and answers we hope you find helpful.

1. What environmental impact would plans to electrify Africa have?
Very little. Independent studies by the International Energy Agency and others have found that providing energy access to the 589 million people in sub-Saharan Africa without power would increase global CO2 emissions by less than 1 percent.

It is important to remember that these plans to increase energy access are targeted at the poorest and least-emitting countries. The average citizen in 17 African countries[1] produces less than 1 percent of the CO2 emissions caused by the average American. While we think renewables are a critical part of the solution, and should be greatly expanded, we do not think those living in the poorest and least-emitting countries should go without energy — or be required to only use renewables — when we don’t ask the same of ourselves. Lack of access to modern energy makes the poorest of the poor even more vulnerable to climate change.

2. What about renewable energy? Can’t energy access be provided without the extra 1 percent of carbon emissions?
We strongly support renewable energy and rapid expansion of energy from renewable sources is a major priority of ONE and a significant part of the US government’s plans. Unfortunately, according to the International Energy Agency and analysis from the World Bank and UN Sustainable Energy for All Initiative, there are currently no consistently reliable, cost-effective, renewable energy solutions that can provide large-scale locations like hospitals and businesses with the consistent power they need. We cannot support an approach that would deny hundreds of millions of people living in extreme poverty access to energy now while we wait for technology to come online.

3. What changes are you calling for in OPIC’s role in expanding energy access?
Our position is that OPIC should be given greater staffing resources so it can expand the number of renewable deals it can catalyze and we will not support any legislation that would reduce OPIC’s renewable investments.

But we also believe it is critical that OPIC be given the flexibility to expand non-renewable deals in the poorest, least-emitting countries as is necessary to meet their energy needs. Their energy needs cannot be met in the foreseeable future by expanding access to renewables alone as shown by the IEA and Sustainable Energy for All Initiative universal energy access scenarios. Unfortunately, OPIC’s current one-size-fits-all cap on emissions has had the unintended consequence of limiting the agency’s ability to spur development and increase energy access for the poorest people on the planet.

4. What are African countries saying about the need for expanded energy access on the continent?
In determining their own energy futures, African countries seek a spectrum of technological solutions. Some are looking at largely renewable energy investments, while others are looking to a mix of renewables and natural gas.

All proposals on the table currently respond to this principle, including President Obama’s Power Africa initiative, the World Bank’s energy strategy, the SE4All Initiative, and Electrify Africa Act. While ONE strongly supports the expansion of renewable energy in Africa, we do not believe that the United States or the global community can dictate to African countries what kind of electricity they can have, especially when the developed world invests in natural gas and is responsible for the lion’s share of global CO2 emissions.

In a Capitol Hill speech and letter of appreciation to Congress for their support of expanding energy access on the continent, the African Ambassadors Group, an organization of the official representatives of African countries to the U.S. government, stressed the importance of ensuring that “the U.S. strategy works in tandem with African national power plans.”

5. Some have suggested that these energy programs are designed to help corporate interests. What’s ONE’s view?
Our sole interest is supporting Africans in their effort to expand modern energy access to the more than 500 million people without it. Energy access has enormous implications for basic quality of life, such as the ability of a pregnant woman facing a difficult labor in the middle of the night to be treated at a hospital with lights and functioning equipment. It impacts the ability to refrigerate childhood vaccines, for students to study after dark or to support street lamps that help make it safer for girls to walk miles to school in the early morning hours. It is essential to irrigating crops, powering up small businesses, and creating jobs.

Surveys of African businesses found that the lack of reliable electricity is the biggest constraint to growth. These are the development issues at the heart of ONE’s work and foremost on the agendas of our partners in Africa engaged in the fight against extreme poverty. Clearly, the business sector also has an important role to play in the expansion of energy access in Africa — whether that is a small business making solar lanterns or a multinational corporation capable of building modern energy plants that can serve tens of millions in urban centers. This is a big challenge to tackle and we think there is a role for everyone at the table.

[1] Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia, Somalia, Burundi, Central African Republic, Chad, DRC, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Liberia, Madagascar, Malawi, Mali, Mozambique, Niger, and Rwanda