Obama’s ‘Power Africa’ Initiative Showing Results, Draws Criticism

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Written by D.A. Barber

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It may be a stretch to think Power Africa is a “Green Trojan Horse” to get fossil fuel energy embedded in the grid infrastructure before renewable energy like solar can actually gain favor, but critics do have other issues with the program.

Critics Still See Problems

“After six months, I’m struggling to figure out what it is, or rather what it would do,” Steve Sawyer, Global Wind Energy Council Secretary General told AFKInsider. “The US is coming rather late to this game, but even so, if that means that there are more players and more reasonably priced finance available in the African market, then it will probably help.”

Power Africa is based on passage of the “Electrify Africa Act of 2013,” introduced the day after Obama arrived in Africa “to support affordable, reliable electricity” development.

While only a quarter of the region has electricity, the legislation isn’t so benevolent: “Africa’s consumer base of 1,000,000,000 people is rapidly growing and will create increasing demand for United States goods, services, and technologies, but the current African electricity deficit limits this growth in demand,” reads the legislation text.

In fact, of the $7 billion the government agencies are pitching in, $5 billion is from the U.S. Import-Export Bank, which guarantees loans if the receiving country uses basically American companies.

Another criticism is that “distributed generation” – off-grid projects in very remote areas – is getting short changed under the Power Africa plan. While the bulk of Power Africa is focused on expanding electricity services for those in or near urban areas, the vast majority of people who suffer from energy poverty live outside the reach of any power grid. Yet, only $2 million was allocated to launch the Off-Grid Energy Challenge to provide grants to develop off-grid electricity in rural areas.

“You’ve got to have power. And yet two-thirds of the population in sub-Saharan Africa lacks access to power – and the percentage is much higher for those who don’t live in cities,” said President Obama in his June 30, 2013, remarks launching  Power Africa.

“So we’re very concerned because we are just as interested in getting power into the hands of the poor, we think that the best, most effective, nimble and fast way to get power into the hands of the poor is to focus on distributed renewable energy technology,” Justin Guay, Associate director for international programs at the Sierra Club told AFKInsider.

Power Africa counters by noting on their website that private sector partners that are focused on mini-grid and distributed power services to rural populations have commitments to “700,000 new households and businesses served and over $1.1 billion in investment.”

Some critics have also pointed to Power Africa’s “clean energy” definition. In fact, in the two “Power Africa” speeches given during his trip to Africa in June 2013, President Obama never mentions solar, wind and geothermal power. In fact, the closest he comes is saying investments will include “cleaner energy.” President Obama told his African audience that “Power Africa” will supply “the energy needed to lift people out of poverty” and “support clean energy to protect our planet and combat climate change.”

Looking at the list of proposed projects from the 36 private partners, burning natural gas and biomass fuels are considered “clean energy” under the Power Africa rules.

Just days after Obama left Africa, the U.S. Embassy in Liberia sponsored a July 11 workshop with three U.S. companies to hype biomass gasifier technology for powering remote areas. The problem is that that technology is a double climate change whammy since it burns biomass to manufacture “syngas,” which is then sold to be burned again as fuel, according to a November 2012 National Renewable Energy Laboratory review of gasifier technology.

There are other proposed Power Africa projects being questioned as being “clean” energy.

Under Power Africa, US-based Symbion Power aims to catalyze $1.8 billion, including acquiring a 972 megawatt gas-fired power plant in Ugheli, developing a 100 megawatt fast-track gas-fired generation project in Ajaokuta, and is developing a 450 megawatt gas-fired power plant in Ghana.

KMRI, in partnership with its joint venture partner in Tanzania, Symbion Power, seeks to complete in the next 18 months the Kigoma Project – a 4 megawatt biomass power plant, the Tunduru Project – a 1 megawatt biomass power plant, and aims to develop 15 megawatt of biomass installations in Ghana.

IAP Worldwide Services is using natural gas and other available fuels to power turbine and engine driven generators.

Husk Power Systems seeks to complete installation of 200 decentralized  biomass mini-power plants in Tanzania.

GG Energy Holdings will develop and operate facilities utilizing biomass, as well as natural gas technologies.

In East Africa, Black Rhino seeks to complete the Pagak Petroleum Refinery – an integrated energy security project creating the trade of low cost fuel and low cost power between Ethiopia and South Sudan.

Some of the “new” projects were actually under way before Power Africa was announced, and there are other concerns that Power Africa is being co-opted by huge corporations like GE. President Obama’s choice to give a second energy speech in Tanzania was during a tour of the diesel-powered Ubungo electric plant recently upgraded by GE and Symbion Power.

“I think that a big part of what’s happening is that companies like GE see a tremendous opportunity to sell oil and gas technology,” Sierra Club’s Guay told AFKInsider. “So yeah, I think there’s a bit of rhetoric saying that is all about powering poor citizens, but there is a lot of reality which is oil and gas companies seeing huge profit opportunity.”

Of course, GE is also involved with some Power Africa renewable energy projects, supplying 38 wind turbines to Kenya’s Kinangop wind power project, as well as providing training for local technicians and maintenance for 10 years. And the company is the major sponsor of the two-year, Off-Grid Challenge to bring power to remote areas in Kenya and Nigeria.

There are also questions about how the 12 different agencies involved will interact, how transparent and flexible the process will be, and even how much of the funds will actually leave the US. Raval at USAID says the 12 agencies “work as a team,” and they do that on a regular basis through power Africa working group meetings so they all are on the same page.

“This is not necessarily the first time we’re doing it, but it is certainly fairly new in terms of how the US government is funding overseas development projects and that is having part of the money come from the private sector and having more of the impetus upon them,” USAID’s Raval told AFKInsider. “And that helps them obviously in terms of American jobs, in terms of sustainability, and in terms of the fact that a lot of these companies have been in Africa on the Continent for many years.”

But the bigger question for Power Africa’s priorities still remains: Is running wires to expand the electric grid from village to village really the best way to go in a rapidly developing Africa?

“What we see as part of Power Africa is it is essentially 20th century solutions to a 21st-century problem,” Guay told AFKInsider. “What we’re saying is that the world’s most sophisticated technologies are the best development tools for the poor. We’ve already seen that with mobile phones and there’s no reason that clean energy can’t and won’t have the same type of leapfrog impact.”