More than two-thirds of the population of Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) is without electricity. In 2013, Obama launched Power Africa, a $7 billion initiative that will double access to power in SSA over a five-year period. Image credit: Craig Mayhew and Robert Simmon, NASA GSFC.

Electrify Africa: Impacted communities must be given a voice

by Kate DeAngelis, international policy analyst

More than two-thirds of sub-Saharan Africa’s population lacks electricity, with that number growing to more than 85 percent in rural areas. The Electrify Africa Act of 2015, a legislative initiative that purports to aim to reduce those numbers, has now passed through both chambers of Congress and is headed to the President’s desk for signature. This bill aims to promote first-time energy access for 50 million people and install 20 additional gigawatts of electricity in sub-Saharan Africa by 2020. This builds off of President Obama’s Power Africa initiative, a program with the twin goals of increasing access to electricity by adding 60 million electricity connections and 30 gigawatts of “new and cleaner” power generation. While these goals sound simple, achieving them in a way that actually benefits local communities without reaping environmental havoc is complicated.

Community engagement and consent are critical for improved energy access

Inclusive, meaningful engagement with local communities must be at the heart of the process in order for Electrify Africa and Power Africa to actually improve energy access and thus make a difference in the daily lives of poor people. Without proper consultation and consent, new power generation is likely to be unaffordable and unsustainable, with benefits accruing to the wealthy and large corporations. In order for energy development projects to bring energy in a way and form that people can use, it must be assured that those without energy access are those who are meant to benefit from the project. Furthermore, they must be made aware that this energy development is happening and thoroughly involved in decision-making and implementation processes.

Without proper consultation and consent, new power generation is likely to be unaffordable and unsustainable, with benefits accruing to the wealthy and large corporations.

To help address this need, Electrify Africa requires that the United States’ strategy to improve access to power in Africa be done in a way that is “responsive to concerns and interests of affected local communities.” This small step will help give a voice to the communities that live and work near Power Africa projects. Much more can be done to ensure increased access to reliable, affordable and truly sustainable energy for those living in Sub-Saharan Africa. The next step after considering complaints of local communities is to actually guarantee the right to free prior and informed consent. This consent will ensure that projects only go forward with the permission of local communities after they have been properly informed of the impacts.

Off-grid renewable energy should trump natural gas

In addition to enhanced community engagement, both Power Africa and Electrify Africa must move beyond the outdated “all of the above” energy strategy, which allows for continued reliance on dirty forms of energy that exacerbate climate pollution and harm local communities, including an emphasis on natural gas. Second, energy projects must prioritize support for those first-time energy access investments that face the greatest challenges in obtaining conventional private financing. Areas that should receive special preference are those with little to no access to power in rural and poor parts of countries.

Mini- and off-grid projects will need to be a major part of the solution in order to reach the approximately 600 million Africans who lack electricity. Unfortunately, Power Africa appears to emphasize large, centralized natural gas projects — a dirty fossil fuel that some scientists believe is worse for the climate than coal. These projects, often in urban or industrial areas that already have access to electricity, are unlikely to reach those lacking access to energy. Small renewable projects, such as solar installations, are a far more effective way to reach communities in rural areas. Unlike natural gas plants, small renewable projects do not have devastating environmental and climate impacts that aggravate food and water scarcity and desertification, issues with which much of sub-Saharan Africa already struggles.

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