Energy & Environmental Policy

Lighting Up a Dark Continent


Take a look at a satellite photo of Africa at night.  Apart from a few specks of light over the largest cities, the continent is dark. Millions of rural Africans live without any electrical power at all, and the U.N. Development Program estimates that on a yearly basis the 19.5 million people of New York State consume more residential electricity than the 791 million people of sub-Saharan Africa, excluding South Africa.

Now, the United States and Europe give a lot of aid to Africa – well over a trillion dollars over the past 50 years – and there is an argument about whether this is or is not enough.  The problem many see is that a substantial amount of this money at best vanishes due to inefficiency, but at worst ends up as a Mercedes Benz in the garage of a gleeful government minister.

Beneath this economic debate, however, lies the fact that aid processes in Africa can be made more efficient and therefore more helpful to some of the poorest people in the world.  These people need many things, but one of their most basic and easily addressed needs is energy.

How can Africa approach this problem?  The answer may lie in the work of organizations like the DESERTEC Foundation, a non-profit that seeks to promote the concept of “clean power from deserts” around the world.  It focuses on the Sahara desert as a source of energy, for the benefit of both Africans and others.

DESERTEC estimates that less than 2 percent of the surface area of the Sahara could produce more energy than the sum total of the world’s current power plants.  The DESERTEC idea involves concentrating solar power (CSP), a technology that uses mirrors to concentrate sunlight, producing steam to drive turbines.  Excess power can even be transported directly to Europe, via high voltage undersea cables.

A huge field of mirrors lying in the middle of a massive desert might sound like a scene from a James Bond movie, but this technology has been in use in the American Southwest for over 20 years.  Even Google is joining in; the company just announced a $168 million investment in the largest CSP plant yet, currently under construction in the Mojave Desert.  The technology is still developing, and therefore very expensive, but with some help Africa could have all the energy it would ever need, and then some.

Apart from bringing literal light to the continent, this plan would allow Africans to earn money from their most abundant natural resource.  But how does this benefit  Americans and Europeans, when we can access electricity at the flip of a simple switch, and laugh at the thought of a power cut?

For starters, the United States and European Union might get a better return on their aid investments if they don’t divide their resources between hundreds of projects in a hodgepodge of different places.  Rather, they could provide technologies, personnel, equipment and infrastructure for targeted, large-scale energy projects across the continent.

The DESERTEC initiative fits this bill perfectly.  Supporting a long-term, large-scale project such as this would give developed nations at least three benefits, not even considering the project’s potential to supply the larger and larger amounts of power they will need in the coming decades.

As we’ve seen during the climate talks of the last two years, developed countries have already pledged large sums of money to the developing world to help cut carbon emissions and mitigate climate change.  The DESERTEC initiative will produce absolutely carbon-free energy and, if adopted on a large scale, could significantly curb greenhouse gas emissions.  There are certainly worse places this money could go.

Second, it might be old hat, but a developed world is a stable world.  As Africa (particularly around the Sahara) continues to clamor for wholesale change, investing in African livelihoods and development becomes so much more important.  Just ask Colonel Gaddafi.

Third, new markets mean new business – African solar energy creates new opportunities for American and European technologies, and brings developing nations further into the global market.  In a European Union that seeks 20 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2020, this makes sound business sense.

All of this might seem impossible; too many people, too large an area, too much money involved.  But tell that to the Chinese – according to the U.N. they are on track for universal electrification by 2015, through a combination of government action and private-sector energy investment.

The simple truth is that these projects will be long-term, and they certainly require high costs in the short-run.  But if we are going to invest in Africa – and we must – then let’s invest in one of its greatest natural resources, the sun.

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