THE BLOG

Is Obama's "Power Africa" Simply Enabling More Climate Change?

Since President Obama's trip to Africa, attention has continued to focus on energy development in Tanzania -- including the nomination of a White House insider as U.S. Ambassador.

In his June 30 speech in South Africa, Obama announced the "Power Africa" pledge of $7 billion, with another $9 billion of private money over five years to double access to electricity in the six sub-Saharan countries of Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Liberia, Nigeria and Tanzania, as well as separate deals with Uganda and Mozambique for "responsible" oil and gas development.

"Power Africa" hinges 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."

In other words, more electricity means we can sell them more iPads and toaster ovens.

But how that electricity is generated depends on whether "Power Africa" is a green technology leader, or a climate-change enabler.

One signal was President Obama's choice to give a second energy speech in Tanzania during a tour of the diesel-powered Ubungo electric plant recently upgraded by GE and Washington, D.C.-based Symbion Power.

It begs the question of why, while in South Africa launching "Power Africa," Obama didn't visit the Jasper Solar Power Project being developed by Google and California-based SolarReserve -- a company granted South Africa's "preferred bidder" status.

South Africa is developing sustainable energy faster than anywhere in the world, pouring $4.3 billion into solar in 2012 as it shifts from 93 percent coal-fired electricity to 43 percent renewables by 2030. In November, South Africa approved another $5.4 billion under Round 2 of the five-round Renewable Energy Independent Power Producers Program that includes eight solar power plants and seven wind farms.

"Power Africa" does include some renewable energy, like Tanzania's Singida wind farm and Kenya's Lake Turkana wind project, both which were already under development. Aldwych International has committed $1.1 billion to the two wind farms, and Harith General Partners has committed $70 million to Kenya's Turkana project.

GE -- which makes wind turbines and toaster ovens -- has also committed to "help develop" energy in Tanzania and Ghana.

But the largest private patron of "Power Africa" is billionaire investor Tony Elumelu of Heirs Holdings, pledging $2.5 billion for mainly oil and gas projects. Elumelu's subsidiary, Transcorp, recently purchased Nigeria's gas-powered Ughelli power plant for upgrading by 2017 in partnership with Symbion Power, owner of the power plant the President went out of his way to tour. Heirs Holdings' wholly-owned Tenoil Petroleum & Energy is also developing Nigeria's oil and gas.

Starting to get the picture?

In the two "Power Africa" speeches, Obama mentions solar, wind and geothermal power a grand total of none. In fact, the closest he comes is saying investments will include "cleaner energy." Yet, the White House Fact Sheet mentions "recent discoveries of oil and gas" and "use of natural resources" six times as playing a "critical role" in "near-term global energy security."

Another telling development after the trip that suggests "Power Africa" is about more than just turning on lights for the poor was Obama's naming of a white, southern lawyer and former lobbyist as U.S. Ambassador to Tanzania, a nation with a harbor critical for U.S. imports and where Power Africa's "Big Results Now!" program will focus.

On July 9, the White House officially nominated Assistant to the President and Deputy Chief of Staff for Planning, Mark Childress. Known as a "fixer" who expedites policies, the White House bio of Childress only briefly mentions his very short stint from 2005 to 2006 as a lawyer for Australia's Balkanu Cape York Development Corporation, where he negotiated oil royalty deals for the Indigenous people. Interestingly, the nomination came as Tanzania's Ministry of Energy and Minerals announced the "Vision 2025" initiative for replacing unreliable hydro power with gas, coal, and renewable energy. Tanzania's newly found oil and gas reserves, rich coal fields, prospects for uranium mining, and the largest gold reserves in Africa behind South Africa, have also not gone unnoticed by the White House.

If confirmed, one can only hope Childress doesn't repeat a recent climate change gaffe in Liberia where the U.S. Embassy sponsored a July 11 workshop with three U.S. companies to hype Biomass Gasifier technology for powering remote areas.

The awkward problem: Biomass gasifier 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 the government's own November 2012 National Renewable Energy Laboratory review of gasifier technology. That study stumbled when most companies "were not interested in sharing confidential cost or engineering information," but NREL did determine that in just making the syngas, a gasifier -- like coal-fired power plants -- produces toxic ash that requires disposal. And like any refinery, excess gas is routinely routed to flare stacks "for incineration and exhaust to the atmosphere."

The regrettable perception was that the U.S. Embassy is helping American companies export climate change to Africa.

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." But the gaping disconnect toward adopting a low-carbon growth path continued when he failed to acknowledge the 2013 Africa Carbon Forum taking place while he was in Africa, or Kenya's progressive feed-in tariff policy, or Google's announcement it was investing $12 million in U.S.-based SolarReserve's South African solar project.

Instead, Obama's speech was just a variation of 4 1/2 years of his lipstick approach to environmental, energy, and climate change policies. Like lipstick, you can't just slap "clean" or "renewable" on the face of policy statements that include coal, natural gas, and diesel and hope nobody notices the ugly underneath.

President Obama also declared that "history tells us that true progress is only possible where governments exist to serve their people, and not the other way around."

Powerful words, but as long as President Obama continues to favor industry lobbyists over science and public opinion here at home, his international clean energy and climate change policy statements -- and legacy -- will continue to be perceived as about as "clean" as a coal miner's nose hairs.