The Politics of Poverty

Ideas and analysis from Oxfam America's policy experts

How can the US help extend first-time energy access to the world’s people?

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Karfa Mane begins to prepare rice for supper - with her granddaughter secured to her back - in the kitchen area of her home in Sare Dembara, Senegal. Photo: Holly Pickett / Oxfam America

Oxfam shares key principles of responsible energy development with the US House of Representatives.

This post is based on his remarks last week at a hearing of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, the Subcommittee on Energy and Power

Read Part I of his testimony here.

Today, the House Foreign Affairs Committee is marking up the Electrify Africa Act, an important piece of legislation which, like President Obama’s Power Africa Initiative, aims to address energy poverty in Africa. With many of our NGO colleagues, Oxfam believes that this legislation should reflect key principles of responsible energy development, including:

1. Prioritize not just energy production, but quality “access.

“Energy access” should focus on households and services such as healthcare and education in poor, rural, and marginalized communities, where access is limited. While strengthening the stability and reliability of electricity supply for industrial development connected to the centralized power grid is also important for economic growth, we should be clear that addressing energy poverty requires a tailored strategy.

2. Prioritize renewable energy development.

In expanding energy access, legislation should prioritize clean, renewable energy sources, including off-grid and mini-grid solutions. There are several reasons this prioritization makes sense:

  • First, exploitation of fossil fuels carries with it long-term costs—for the climate, for human health, and often for the ecosystems, natural resources and communities from which they must be extracted. Unfortunately, these costs typically aren’t recorded in the ledgers of the corporations that profit from fossil fuel development, but instead are borne by all of us.
  • Second, those who live without access to energy live in remote, rural communities that aren’t reached by the conventional electricity grid. The International Energy Agency (IEA) has indicated that conventional grid extension is viable for urban areas and only about 30% of rural areas, leaving 70% of rural areas in need of mini-grid or off-grid solutions. In my own experience in rural Afghanistan, I saw small businesses starting and girls doing their homework at night under light-bulbs that would not have been there if we had opted for centralized power schemes. Renewable energy is better suited for such decentralized power needs, and in fact, in the scenario developed by the IEA for universal access to energy, 65% of that energy comes from renewable sources. The Overseas Private Investment Corporation, for example, has advanced a renewable resources portfolio that is making it a development investment leader.
  • Finally, renewable energy capital costs have plummeted in recent years and are expected to drop still further. According to a 2013 market research paper by Deutsche Bank, in South Africa solar energy for residential use is already capable of being deployed more cheaply than the current price of electricity from the grid.

3. Strengthen governance institutions.

The promotion of energy access should also support inclusive, transparent, and accountable processes for planning, implementation, and management. Investments should ensure compliance with international best practice fiduciary standards and social and environmental safeguards. In cases of potentially significant environmental and social impacts, communities must have the right to free, prior and informed consent to projects.

While renewable energy technologies present many advantages over fossil fuel development, we recognize that a mix of energy sources will be needed to fully address energy poverty around the world. When natural gas investment is part of the solution, its development needs to be under the same best practice economic, environmental, and social safeguard assessments to ensure clear public interest that benefits the poor.

The United States must take preventive action to achieve a dramatic and immediate reduction in the greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change. We also must support affordable, available clean energy technologies that benefit communities today and in the future. That is why we want more investment, innovation and leadership focused on 21st century solutions to our energy and climate challenges.

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