Fiat Lux: Observations on the Power Africa Initiative

Despite posessing only 12% of the world's population Sub-Saharan Africa accounts for nearly 45% of those without access to energy.
Despite constituting only 12% of the world’s population, Sub-Saharan Africans account for 45% of those without access to electricity.

“God said, Let there be light: and there was light. And God saw the light, and it was good; and God divided the light from the darkness.” Although this verse from the Book of Genesis has been recited to the point of being a hackneyed cliche in energy literature, it nonetheless speaks to two powerful truths; that light—a pure form of energy—is good, and that it is ever-present. This statement is taken as gospel by many in the developed world, as a proclamation of energy’s abundance and virtue.  Indeed, other than a handful of outlying commentators, few would deny the former quality and even less the latter. For an appreciative American consumer—who pays some of the lowest energy rates in the world—such a system must seem nothing short of providential. This providence, however, is hardly universal, indeed as Genesis proclaims the light has been divided from the darkness. For many without light, without energy, this line of demarcation is the Sahel region of Africa, separating Sub-Saharan Africa from the rest of the world.

With over 600 million Africans, without access to regular energy it is not hyperbolic to suggest that the region is mired in a new dark age. In response to this plight the Obama administration has announced its Power Africa initiative.  Following in the footsteps of African initiatives such as George W. Bush’s PEPFAR, Power Africa is intended as an American led effort to revitalize an area of the world whose growth has laggardly pitched between stagnation and anemia. With an ambitious goal to double Sub-Saharan Africa’s access to power, President Obama outlined his plan to:

“start by investing seven billion dollars in U.S. government resources… [and] to partner with the private sector who themselves have committed more than nine billion dollars in investment, and in partnership with African nations, we’re going to develop new sources of energy… and we’ll support clean energy to protect our planet and combat climate change.”

President Obama delivering his address at the University of Cape Town. (Evan Vucci/AP)
President Obama delivering his address at the University of Cape Town. (Evan Vucci/AP)

The commentary that has poured forth in response has been both raucous and wide-ranging. It has, however, either missed or underrepresented two important conclusions of this address,  topics which deserve greater exposure.The first of these is the conceptual heritage of President Obama’s development model. Whereas the earlier development paradigms of the 1960s and 1970s, stressed the importance of massive bilateral aid flows from the American government to the governing apparatuses of the recipient states, the Power Africa model carries in its assumptions an explicit recognition that “only with greater private sector investment can the promise of Power Africa be realized”.

Although certainly a departure from the earlier models, the President’s plan does not represent an innovation, but rather a solidification of an earlier transition to the private sector begun by PEPFAR, whose public-private partnerships are widely credited as the source of the program’s strength. When viewed in conjunction with the President’s Trade Africa initiative, the President’s decision to continue in the vein of his predecessor indicates an overall approach to African development that favors market-led approaches. This realignment of development priorities mirrors the decades long shift among academics away from government channeled aid and toward privately-led investment.

Second, the President’s inclusion of clean energy in his prescription for an African renewal is curious. On the one hand its inclusion is hardly surprising. Given the White House’s recent embrace of a stronger climate change measures and similar pledges made during the campaign season the shouldering of a clean energy mantle is not unprecedented. Furthermore, with its sun soaked  expanses, South Africa—where the Power Africa address was delivered—seems an obvious place to announce clean energy commitments.

On the other hand, South Africa has seen limited development of this potential, with less than half of one percent of its electricity generated by renewable sources and its only real attempt at spurring renewables languishing in bureaucratic limbo.While it might be concluded that politicking has kept the low hanging fruit of solar power out of reach, to attribute the failure of renewable energy to capture market share to political malfeasance falsely conflates the symptom with the true cause: coal.With the sixth largest reserves of coal in the world, it is unsurprising to find that  cheap coal provides over 90% of South Africa’s electricity. Furthermore, South Africa is hardly alone in Africa, with Zimbabwe, Botswana, Zambia, Tanzania, and the DRC—countries also set to receive investment under Power Africa—possessing both sizable coal reserves and a preference for coal-fired electrical generation.

Considered conjointly, the Obama administration’s focus on private investment and the nearly insurmountable barriers posed by the prevalence of coal suggests an approach that while cognizant of the primary role of dirty fuels nonetheless finds it necessary to air more sustainable alternatives. Although it is probably fair to characterize  such rhetoric as political grandstanding, it is highly unlikely that the sincerity of the President’s commitment to clean energy is a chief concern of 600 million Africans without regular access to electricity.


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