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March 27, 2014

Choosing the Right Tool for the Energy Access Job

image from http://aviary.blob.core.windows.net/k-mr6i2hifk4wxt1dp-14032721/2c512fbc-62c5-43a9-a6d4-5b5006602941.png
Eneji Pwop provides clean energy technology products like these to people in Haiti. The Power Africa initiative could provide a space for similar off-grid renewable projects.

Across the world, there are still 1.3 billion people living in severe energy poverty, and almost half of them—587 million—live in Sub-Saharan Africa. In an attempt to expand energy access for people in Sub-Saharan Africa, President Obama announced the Power Africa initiative in June 2013, and today, the Sierra Club submitted written testimony for a Senate hearing on the ambitious initiative.

The initiative has brought much-needed attention to the critical problem of energy poverty in Africa. Today, the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations’ Subcommittee on African Affairs sought to examine the power of that initiative.

While commendable, this initiative should include avenues for small-scale, clean energy projects. These are called “distributed renewables,” and are often owned by individuals or groups instead of utilities. In the written testimony, the Sierra Club calls for the Power Africa Initiative to expand its support for distributed renewables in the form of off-grid and mini-grid energy access projects. So far, support from the Power Africa Initiative has been skewed toward large-scale power plants. Clean energy has received significantly less support.  

The traditional approach to the problem of energy poverty has been powering homes and buildings with large-scale power plants connected to a geographically extensive grid. It’s becoming clear that this approach won’t be sufficient or economical. In many cases, distributed renewables are the best tool for the job as they’re better suited for many of the rural areas where people lack electricity. This is because grid extension is often slow and expensive, and is many times unreliable even in the areas where it reaches.

On the other hand, distributed renewables are quickly becoming reliable, rapid, and affordable. Entrepreneurs have developed innovative financial models that help the poor avoid paying up-front costs. These models, including pay-as-you-go systems and mobile phone-enabled money transfer platforms, make energy more affordable for poor families. Additionally, game-changing efficiency improvements in appliances such as lights, cell phone chargers, fans, and televisions have enabled smaller, cheaper solar systems to deliver more energy services at lower costs.

The Sierra Club’s written testimony argues that, to capture the benefits of new technologies and financial models and move beyond outdated approaches, Power Africa should strike a balance among grid extension, mini-grid, and off-grid solutions. Of these three approaches, we currently see the least emphasis on, and most need for, distributed clean energy sources that power mini-grids and off-grid solutions. The testimony recommends that Power Africa implement a dedicated loan guarantee for distributed clean energy projects.

If we are able to move beyond business as usual, we can help catalyze a 21st-century transition in Africa. Just as mobile phones have leapfrogged landlines, distributed renewables can leapfrog centralized grids in energy-poor places like Sub-Saharan Africa. It’s time we unlock the world’s most sophisticated technologies for the world’s poorest populations.

--John Coequyt, Director of the Sierra Club's International Climate Program


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