The Politics of Poverty

Ideas and analysis from Oxfam America's policy experts

Will an ‘All of the above” energy strategy work for Africa’s poor?

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Food vendor Dado Sade builds a fire to begin cooking supper at her home in Kolda, Senegal. Her 2-year-old child, Daude Mballo, sleeps nearby. Photo: Holly Pickett / Oxfam America

Combating energy poverty requires greater ambition, increased financing and smart policies to ensure that the poor benefit.

A week after President Obama’s return from Africa, yesterday Congress made its own move to increase energy access in sub-Saharan Africa by introducing its latest version of the Electrify Africa Act in the Senate. The lack of access to electricity – even just enough to power a light bulb or charge a phone – impacts the quality of life for millions around the world.

As Congress and the international community look to define how best to address these challenges, it’s time to get specific. In the Electrify Africa Act, Members of Congress introduced an “all of the above” energy strategy, a new concept as far as international energy financing goes. Details are needed on what an all of the above strategy actually is and means for the development priorities of the energy poor.

“All of the above” could be: more coal?

The problems of South Africa recently highlighted in the New York Times are an excellent example of the challenges the continent faces. Although 85 percent of households are electrified, both rich and poor communities are lucky to have 30 minutes of electricity a day due to outage problems from load-shedding of coal plants and grid inefficiencies. So much for fossil fuels having no intermittency problems compared to renewables! Reliability of supply is critical to effectively address energy poverty. That requires understanding what types of energy choices reach the poor and best serve their needs, a stated goal of Electrify Africa.

So what’s the answer for South Africa’s woes in this example?  Is it a dramatic scale-up of centralized power, or something else? Let’s look at where the grid has gotten the Africa’s poor so far. Coal plants experience massive cost overruns, unsustainable water requirements, and weaknesses in grid infrastructure. This doesn’t even include the state run utilities being plagued by corruption and inefficiencies despite significant efforts to resolve the situation.

These are examples of what can take place when there’s a blanket mandate to include fossil fuels for combating energy poverty without protections and measures in place. Coal in particular, which as the international development community has shown, has limited suitability for meeting energy poverty needs, and even according to the World Bank, should only be considered in ‘rare’ circumstances, if at all.

As Oxfam and others have said before, clean energy access has a much better bang for the development buck than centralized fossil fuels in fighting energy poverty,  especially  in terms of  getting communities up the first steps on the energy ladder. So it’s encouraging that the Electrify Africa Act references the role of off-grid and mini-grid decentralized clean energy sources.

The added benefit of clean energy is that it can catalyze energy development without locking African countries into antiquated energy technologies that exacerbate climate change.

“All of the above” should be: pro-poor and context-specific

The bottom line is that clean energy is one of the most effective approaches at reaching more of the poor. It’s cheaper, faster, comes with less baggage, scores extra points for low carbon merits, and importantly, needs an additional leg up to realize all of these benefits. Many African leaders agree that scaling up investment in energy can create a strong, low-carbon infrastructure for the continent. Rather than creating dangerous, general mandates on energy choices, Congress should, at the very least, specify the conditions for using energy in developing country markets. Especially, since developing markets often don’t have the strong protective measures in place as industrialized countries.

Yes, the developing world is different from the United States. Hence, a different approach is needed. People are living on a $1.25 a day, one in eight are going hungry, and lack basic services, not to mention the democratic institutions and governance structures needed to provide these services in the first place. It’s this development imperative that requires a more thoughtful approach to avoid some of the shocking expenses and risks that can result from energy investments gone wrong.

The developing world certainly can’t afford the $18.7 billion tab of the BP oil spill.

When precious few development dollars are available, we should not let such policies become a mandate for locking developing country economies into harmful and costly energy pathways. Policy makers need to be mindful of the unique needs of energy-starved communities as they articulate this “all of the above” approach.

Connect with Sas Thilakasiri on Twitter @SasThilak

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