A plan unveiled in Cape Town by US energy boss Rick Perry could see a massive jump in electricity across the continent.
Unlike the World Bank with its ban on coal, there’ll be no limits on how the power is made … except that it has to be clean.
If Texas was a country, it would rank in the top 10 economies, with a GDP larger than South Africa, Egypt, Kenya and Nigeria combined.
This is the biggest state of mainland USA, with more people than Australia. And despite being a hub for oil and gas, its air quality is better now than 20 years ago.
There are lessons to be learned according to the longest-serving governor in Texas history.
Rick Perry led the state from 2000, stepping down 15 years later to run for president. When Donald Trump looked to have the numbers, Perry pulled out and joined his campaign. And on taking office, Trump made him secretary of state for energy.
In October, Mr Perry attended Africa Oil Week, in Cape Town, but talked more about electricity, and his belief that only by getting people on the grid can there be an end to poverty and unemployment.
“We will partner with African countries to expand electricity across the continent, including from fossil fuels,” he said.
“I like coal, oil and gas,” Perry told guests at one event. “It takes courage to say it, they provide the core of your power. Once you have that, you can add wind and other renewables.”
And “add” he did. By the time he left the governor’s mansion in Austin, Texas ranked seventh in the world for wind turbines, though they provide less than eight per cent of the state’s electricity.
Eskom, South Africa’s power monopoly produces nearly half the continent’s kilowatts and 93 per cent of that is from coal. More than 600 million Africans still live off the grid but Mr Perry said he had no time for “outsiders dictating how to close the gap”.
He didn’t mention anyone by name, but the issue of “outsiders dictating” was still hot from a World Bank meeting in Washington a fortnight before Perry’s visit to Cape Town.
In 2013, the Bank announced a ban on funding to projects using coal. India, Nigeria, Colombia, Australia and the Philippines are among a long list of countries calling for that to change, and some have departed from diplomatic language.
Kemi Adeosun who is finance minister in Nigeria says it’s “not fair because the entire western industrialisation system was built on coal-fired energy.
“This is the competitive advantage that was used to develop Europe,” Mrs Adeosun said, “but now that Nigeria wants to do it they say we can’t because it’s not green.”
“Live in darkness.”
Indian rail minister, Piyush Goyal, was just as blunt. “Solar works when the sun is shining, wind works when the wind is blowing, hydro works when there is water in the rivers,” he said. “All renewables are intermittent.
“I do wish people would reflect on the justice of the situation.”
Goyal said that in banning coal, “they’re saying to us, we’re sorry but you Indians can only have power for eight hours a day. The rest of the time you must live in darkness.”
Coal is by far the most abundant fossil fuel, making 41 per cent of all the world’s electricity.
But the Perry Plan as some have dubbed it doesn’t favour gas, coal, wind or solar. Rather, he says, “countries must be free to choose what works best for them.”
Mozambique has natural gas, but also the world’s fourth-largest coal mine at Moatize. Burundi has wind coming off Lake Tanganyika.
Nigeria has oil and coal, and the Sahara desert looks made for solar, though in Africa and India the challenge remains of panels being stolen, the copper and other metal stripped and sold for scrap.
Key elements of the Perry Plan are:
- Get Africa onto the grid quickly with whatever you have at hand.
- Each country must be free to choose how it makes energy. America will not push any one technology.
- Generating power must be done cleanly, whatever the source.
- The US will make available its latest clean-coal technology where needed.
- Intermittent energy that only works under the right conditions – including wind and solar – will be used to top up supply.
The plan mirrors earlier comments by former United Nations Secretary General, Kofi Annan. “Achieving universal access to modern electricity is critical to Africa’s transformation,” Mr Annan said.
“African governments must harness every available energy option so that no one is left behind. Each country needs to decide on the most cost-effective mix that works best for its own needs.”
Recent data from the International Energy Agency (IEA) found that, on current roll-out, 674 million in the developing world will still be without electricity by 2030.
According to the IEA, nearly all of the 1.2 billion people who have gained access to power since 2000 have done so via grid connection, with 70 per cent generated by fossil fuels.
Charity or self-interest?
If helping Africa sounds like Donald Trump playing Mother Teresa, look closer. At the 2016 election he snatched key states from Hillary Clinton with a promise of jobs, many of them in manufacturing, but also in coal states where mines had closed because of bans and taxes put in place by Barrack Obama.
Nine months into the Trump presidency, the bans are gone and coal production is not only up but jobs in the sector have climbed 8.6 per cent. And billions are being spent on research to make all fossil fuels burn more cleanly.
If he can spread the concept, it could play well at home. Help for Africa is popular with black voters in America, an electorate where Mr Trump needs to build support.
In Cape Town, Mr Perry spoke of a “global clean coal alliance,” covering all six continents and ranging from India, Australia and Poland to Africa and Latin America.
“It is not a choice between development and the environment.” he said. “You can have both. We need to open debates on these issues, and countries must be free to choose which way they want to go.
“My showing up here is about US support for Africa. We will invest in African energy projects, but it’s also time to let technology be your friend.
We will help this continent make more power, and we will do it cleanly.”
Donald Trump has a problem with aid, or rather unaccountable billions handed over to governments who have, in the past, done little with the money.
The US will instead help to manage the electrification project, with results measured in how many people can be linked to the grid in the shortest possible time.
Long before entering politics, Trump had criticised the United Nations, World Bank and other institutions where America is the largest funder. These groups, “give us little in return,” he said
Since taking the White House, he has backed out of the Paris climate change accord and withdrawn from UNESCO.
Increasingly, his administration is holding organisations to account.
At the end of October, his ambassador at the United Nations refused to endorse an African military force funded by the UN that would deal with extremists in the Sahel region. First, she said, there had to be a clear plan of action.
Although the world body has 193 members, Washington pays a quarter of its $7.3bn peace-keeping budget.
Ambassador Hayley said she wanted to know “what the strategy would be, how they see this playing out, what’s involved in it before we commit to UN-assessed funding.”
Yet on its own, the US spends big on security in Africa, with troops and training-missions in more than a dozen countries at risk from militants.
In Cape Town, observers said Mr Perry’s plan followed the same line, going around the World Bank and making its own assessment of Africa’s energy needs.
The link doesn’t end there. The Pentagon has identified a lack of industry and accompanying unemployment as a factor in young men joining militia groups.
In China, India, Europe and the US, fossil fuels account for most of the power. Renewables are still in single digits. Perry sees Africa going the same route.
In response to claims this might harm the planet, he called for new research on clean coal and gas.
“We have seen the public scared by people who have political agendas,” he said.
“Lobbyists and institutions need to take their thumb off the scale, and stop favouring one form of energy over another”.
“If there are risks they need to be minimized, but the priority is that Africans must have access to affordable power.”
With little over two years left before Mr Trump has to start his campaign for re-election, there’s an urgency to get things done.
As he left Cape Town, Perry promised nothing less.
“The time has come,” he said, ‘for Africans to show the world how innovation and energy can offer a better life to the millions who call this continent home.”