Ending Energy Poverty Matters: We Can Do It Cleanly and the Waypoints are Clear
By Mark Carrato, Coordinator, Power Africa
I’m not going to lie: I’m completely dependent on Google Maps. I used to have a good sense of direction. I could drive anywhere on a hunch. As a young Boy Scout I managed to find my way through the forest with nothing more than a paper map and a compass. But now, when Google tells me to turn, I turn. In my car, I am literally on navigational cruise control.
Such an automated wayfinding approach is not quite as effective for reaching a goal as complicated and complex as bringing power to 600 million people. But I fear that it is tempting to think, or maybe even hope, that we are on cruise control when it comes to ending energy poverty. We know we are not.
Inclusive energy development and delivery remains one of the grandest development challenges of our time.
We need to pull out our compasses, set our destination, remain steadfast in our commitment, and rapidly accelerate — all while being purposefully opportunistic and creative in how we partner to get there.
The Destination: The End of Energy Poverty on a Climate-Stable Planet
There’s a harsh reality that chills everyone I know working in the energy sector: Nearly 600 million people in sub-Saharan Africa still live without access to electricity. These households, businesses, and communities not yet able to plug in represent an incalculable loss of potential — potential we need to capitalize on now more than ever.
Additionally — and beyond alarmingly — the world is warming at an unsustainable rate. The repercussions, not to be felt in some far off future, are here now, and all around us.
Energy systems are one of the largest contributors of climate-damaging emissions. In 2021, global energy-related emissions reached their highest levels ever due to heavy reliance on coal to power COVID-19 economic recovery. While energy systems in developed economies have historically driven and continue to drive emissions, we are also in grave danger of accelerating climate change by relying on fossil-based energy systems as we undertake the unassailable imperative to immediately bring energy to those who lack it.
The challenge is clear. Compass point set.
The Commitment: Partnering to Find a Way Forward
It’s been my privilege to lead Power Africa, a U.S. presidential initiative since 2013, championed via bipartisan Congressional support of the Electrify Africa Act.
Power Africa continues as one of the largest, most successful partnerships between government and the private sector, working to double access to life-changing electricity, in concert with a just energy transition that seeks climate action and inclusive benefits for all.
Through hundreds of power projects, most of them green, we have collectively brought first-time electricity to more than 165 million people, aided 40 countries, and mobilized $23.5 billion in energy infrastructure investment.
The primary voltage running through Power Africa’s partnership array comes from the private sector, now with more than 190 companies officially on board. Combined with 12 U.S. government agencies, and 20 international development partners, this powerful partnership works with governments and communities by building on private sector experience, innovation and resources. This allows us to both support the regulatory frameworks and technical and human capacity required to manage the sector while also attracting investment into bankable projects. In other words, we aim to not only follow market signals, but work with all partners to accelerate the markets themselves.
The Path: Waypoints of Innovation and Circumnavigating Obstacles
As we look at the state of the energy sector in sub-Saharan Africa, the market signals are clear, as are the opportunities for a green path forward. There is a near inexhaustible demand for energy from households to industries, input prices for many of our technologies are falling through the floor, trillions of dollars of climate finance are searching for clean energy transactions and burgeoning carbon markets, and both investors and governments are increasingly focusing on ESG investment criteria that lends itself to renewable energy solutions. This presents an incredible opportunity to evolve energy systems in sub-Saharan Africa, and more importantly, create new systems that incorporate sustainability and resilience from the outset, and avoid costly retrofits.
That said, there remain myriad challenges that will need to be overcome to reach our destination: An overwrought risk perception for investing in Africa, a lack of transparency and corruption in procurement frameworks, insufficient capacity and skill training to implement and manage new technologies, inadequate system-wide energy planning, and regulatory environments that do not incentivize private sector investment. The complexity and interrelated nature of these factors demands that we constantly innovate and change our approach. In solving these challenges we will make the path forward more predictable and less risky. And history has shown that when risk is mitigated and markets are predictable, private sector investment follows.
Challenges notwithstanding, there are already many good signs on the way. Power Africa support for Malawi’s first utility-scale solar plus storage power project is a great example. Made possible by years of thoughtful policy reform, including the Millennium Challenge Corporation’s support of the country’s first-ever competitive procurement for renewable energy, the project was co-developed by Power Africa partners JCM Power and the Private Infrastructure Development Group’s InfraCo Africa. The U.S. Trade and Development Agency provided feasibility assistance, and USAID supported the development of a bankable financial model and assisted with integrating battery storage into the project. Together, this partnership resulted in the first utility-scale solar plant in the region to include a battery energy storage system (BESS), which helped Malawi deliver critical power and diversify its energy mix along the way.
In addition, impending sector-wide changes will upend how we think about energy systems. The emergence of large-scale distributed renewable energy (DRE) has advantageously blurred the lines between on- and off-grid solutions. Utility-scale BESS promises to be a baseload game changer. Innovation efforts small and large–from EVs to smart meters to solar panels that track the sun, for example–will help pave the way. Moreover, solutions to energy problems are not emanating from the energy sector alone. Critically we are seeing cross-sectoral and cross-platform innovations. Power Africa partners are looking to boost these approaches.
For example, take our Health Electrification and Telecommunication Alliance. Recognizing the importance of preserving vaccine cold chains and enabling data-driven care, we pivoted during the COVID pandemic to power health clinics, putting a variety of new productive use renewable energy solutions and financing models into play. That successful response turned into a full-scale global development alliance, ready to crowd-in renewable energy abundant and reliable enough to turn 10,000 clinics into community productivity anchors that can improve lives and livelihoods for millions.
Launched at the U.S. — Africa Leaders Summit in December, our U.S.-Africa Clean Tech Energy Network is another powerful partnership example. Simply put, clean tech is well networked in the U.S., and increasingly in Africa, but not sufficiently between the two. Our network is building a two-way ecosystem of companies, investors, entrepreneurs, incubators, and government stakeholders to unlock innovation and bankable transactions. Aiming for $350 million in deals within the first five years, our initial project portfolio features technology that advances distributed renewable energy, long-term energy storage, run-of-river hydropower, and smart metering.
The Journey Continues
As my tenure as Power Africa Coordinator ends and I move to my next assignment with USAID, I would be remiss not to acknowledge and thank the immense dedication, dynamism, camaraderie, and passion of those with whom I have had the pleasure to work. From host government colleagues who provide the vision we strive to follow to innovative fellow development partners and from companies willing to take a risk with the bottom line to the scholars, practitioners, advocates, and activists–especially those in Africa–who push the envelope of our knowledge and keep us honest, I am thankful to be part of this partnership with the most important of goals.
As we make haste on the path to carbon-free, universal energy access, let’s continue to listen to each other’s voices — most importantly the voices of those we aim to assist — be adaptive and innovative when faced with obstacles, scale and document our collective successes, and not stop until the job is done.
I will continue to traverse this path with you. It is a good thing I have my compass.
Mark Carrato assumed duties as Coordinator of Power Africa in April of 2020. A career foreign service officer, he’s been selected to serve as USAID’s Senior Representative for Brazil.