The Electrify Africa Act is a missed opportunity for both electricity and Africa

On October 8, the Electrify Africa Act, a bill that aims to expand US efforts to expand Africa’s electrical grid, passed the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. This move has been praised by the ONE campaign as a great leap forward in the fight against extreme poverty as the bill aims to provide 50,000,000 people access to electricity by 2020, all the while supposedly incurring a net cost of close to nothing, paying for itself by spurring private investment.

Since recent estimates indicate that 600 million people, or two-thirds of all inhabitants of Sub-Saharan Africa, have no access to electricity, Democrats and Republicans have seen this bill as a win-win situation that will have positive effects on healthcare, counterterrorism efforts and American jobs as US relations are strengthened with countries that could soon afford to purchase American products. However, the bill is only demonstrative of Congress’s lack of a cohesive strategy in the fight against extreme poverty. The bill will fail to help the people most severely marginalized in current systems, damage the long-term prospects of Africa’s economy, and become a lost opportunity for the fight against climate change.

The actual text of the bill, S. 2152, merely legislates the development of Africa’s electrical grid as an executive priority. Although it calls upon the President to deliver regular reports on his progress, the bill has no real measures of accountability, or even clear goals other than the provision of infrastructure in Africa for an additional 20 gigawatts of electricity by 2020. This provision is actually redundant, since President Obama has already developed an initiative to spur billions of dollars in private investment in Africa’s electrical infrastructure through Power Africa, which has already mobilized investments for an additional 4.1 GW of electricity through four million connections. Power Africa aims to provide an additional 30 GW of electricity through 60 million connections in total.

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Pollution via Shutterstock

With the lack of any real goals or accountability measures in the Electrify Africa Act other than raw power generation, one might look to Power Africa for guidance on how Congress’s aid to Africa will play out. As of July 2015, current renewable energy investments have made up just 300 MW of the 4,100 MW of electrical infrastructure to be created, and generally, just half of the projects for renewable energy are aimed at delivering electricity to the most impoverished rural lands through off-grid structures.

With the nascent state of Africa’s electrical infrastructure and the lack of competing fossil fuel industries, the continent could have represented a potential opportunity to expand access to electricity without yielding to industries based on nonrenewable resources. Furthermore, with Africa’s vast rural populations, renewable energy industries aren’t just an opportunity—they’re a necessity since they, as noted by the International Energy Agency, can reach people off-grid in a decentralized manner that fossil fuels can’t. Renewable energy solutions can operate on a small scale when people are spread far apart while fossil fuels require immense and centralized refineries, generators and other structures to be effective.

This fact is crucial to any analysis of Africa’s energy problems, since the poverty of rural populations holds enormous significance for geopolitics and governance. My research at the Global Initiative for Civil Society and Conflict has repeatedly indicated that in Nigeria, the failure of the government to sufficiently develop the rural regions of Northern Nigeria has been a source of social discontent, and thus, a recruitment tool for Boko Haram insurgents. Renewable energy could potentially be a tool to reach these populations, and thus stabilize countries against terrorist threats by preventing them from forming in the first place. But so long as fossil fuel development that fails to reach those living in rural regions is prioritized over renewable energy resources that can change lives in a decentralized fashion, that door for international development and statecraft will remain closed.

And yet Congress has chosen to give deference to the fossil fuel energy industry. In response to proponents of renewable energy resources, the ONE campaign — a political activist network aimed at reducing extreme poverty internationally — has politicized the issue and has made dubious claims against renewable energy.

ONE claims that expanding nonrenewable energy access to Africans will hardly affect greenhouse gas emissions. But their justification for that claim is based on how little electricity Africans use because of Africa’s underdeveloped infrastructure; they fail to account for increases in demand that will coincide with the expansion of supply. ONE even goes so far as to claim that “there are currently no consistently reliable” renewable energy solutions, citing the International Energy Agency. There’s no source indicating that the International Energy Agency has taken such a position — in fact, the IEA has said the opposite, as it is strongly supportive of renewable energy, especially for rural populations that can’t be reached through a national grid run by fossil fuels.

There are a host of dangers associated with the failure of Congress to prioritize off-grid and renewable energy solutions for Africa. For one, the permanent storage of fossil fuels means that they can be used as political weapons. Also problematic is the fact that their price fluctuations can have a severe impact on national economies, with a 10% oil price per barrel increase being correlated with a 0.5% loss in GDP in the US and EU. They’re also expensive for governments, as developing countries spend an estimated $630 billion annually on consumption subsidies for fossil fuels when just $57 billion is spent on renewable energy subsidies worldwide annually. And they’re subject to bottlenecks like seaports and pipelines and vulnerable to terrorist attacks because of their centralization.

Instead of demonstrating Congress’s resolve, the Electrify Africa Act has merely demonstrated that Congress neither knows much about nor has a plan for Africa’s energy industries. Their governance has long been the political theater that the presidential horse race is becoming, where all politicians and candidates are paying lip-service to platitudes of justice, opportunity and equality without showing any real statesmanship.


Anhvinh Doanvo is an MSPPM candidate at Carnegie Mellon University. He has written for numerous publications including The Hill, Georgetown Public Policy Review, and Baltimore Sun. He is one of forty 2016 finalists for the Thomas R. Pickering Foreign Affairs Fellowship, which funds twenty US citizens' graduate education annually and places them in the American Foreign Service of the Department of State. You can follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/anhvinhdoanvo or Facebook at Facebook.com/AnhvinhD.

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  • dcinsider

    Put me down as unwilling to see my taxpayer money going to help any African nation that treats its gay and lesbians citizens like criminals. I don’t give a shit if they have any electricity, food, or water until they stop making gays and lesbians their societal scapegoats.

  • Indigo

    That too. But it’s ours.

  • nicho

    It’s a clumsy system on a good day.

    On a good day, it’s hopelessly corrupt.

  • Indigo

    I wasn’t aware of the Electrify Africa Act but it strikes me as entirely reasonable and unarguably desirable. You’re right to conclude that the failure of Congress to fund it is a signal of the ignorance of energy options that infest Congress today. I’m sorry that’s the case, I don’t have a solution to that situation other than to say, as others have said, that we need to do our utmost to educate the members of Congress. It goes without saying that the current House has presented itself as a set of ineducable Troglodytes. We have to replace them; that solution is at the ballot box. We bide our time, we hope, we wait, we vote. It’s a clumsy system on a good day.

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