Powering Africa by investing in coal

This week President Obama hosted a three-day summit with leaders from African countries focused on “Investing in the Next Generation”.  While there were a number of sessions focusing on investment in health, business, and education, only 45 minutes were allotted to discuss developing Africa’s energy infrastructure.

The link between access to energy and a brighter future for Africa is direct. As the International Energy Agency stated, “access to affordable and reliable energy services is fundamental to reducing poverty and improving health, increasing productivity, enhancing competitiveness, and promoting economic growth.”

This topic requires more than just a cursory panel discussion.

Most of Africa lives in energy poverty. Sub-Saharan Africa produces roughly enough energy to power one 60-watt light bulb per person for 3 hours each day. That means scarce electricity for refrigeration, for running hospitals and schools, or for powering a modern economy. Remarkably, fewer than 1 in 6 rural Africans are connected to an electricity supply.

The question remains, what can be done about this? Encouraging access to reliable, affordable energy – including coal – is a first step. However, the Obama administration and other organizations have been putting up roadblocks.

This week, World Bank President Jim Kim decried “energy apartheid” and said “If some people have taken a position where we say no coal, no nuclear, no hydro, then we’re really not serious.” Yet last year the World Bank announced a new directive to limit financing of coal-fired power plants to “rare circumstances”. Similar policies issued by the Obama Administration have sought to prevent investments into coal-fired power plants by the Treasury Department and the Export-Import Bank.

Thankfully, some are taking notice. Earlier this year, we worked with House Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) to add language in the 2014 spending bill to stop the Export-Import bank from cutting off funding for coal projects. We need to do more.

Poverty-stricken countries need access to all forms of energy, not just the forms approved by the Obama administration or the World Bank. Africa is home to ample resources that could help the continent emerge from energy poverty. South Africa alone has some 30 billion tons of coal reserves. Zimbabwe has another 500 million tons. Tanzania and other countries also have plentiful coal resources. We should support those countries plans to build new, clean, coal-fired power plants.

Energy is a “master resource” that is ultimately embedded in everything humans do or create. Without energy, it is impossible for Africa’s economy to grow. Without energy, it’s impossible to educate children and give them a brighter future. Without energy it is impossible to grow businesses and encourage entrepreneurship.

Currently Africa is undergoing an information revolution. Mobile phone ownership has soared in Africa, connecting Africans to the outside world. Roughly half of Africans own a mobile phone. However the unreliable power grid has slowed this unprecedented opportunity and limited the broader impact of cell phones on economic growth.

The ongoing health crisis in Africa, from HIV/AIDS to the Ebola epidemic, needs energy to help provide needed resources to healthcare workers, hospitals, and pharmacies. You can’t keep medicines adequately refrigerated when your power is unreliable and intermittent.

Energy poverty is a pervasive global issue, and coal could help fight this fundamental problem. So while U.S. and African leaders are discussing Africa’s future, they should be focusing more on helping African countries emerge from energy poverty. If our leaders are truly interested in investing in Africa’s future, they should turn on the lights, and use a fuel source that can produce affordable and reliable electricity.

McKinley has represented West Virginia's 1st Congressional District since 2011. He sits on the Energy and Commerce Committee.