As Western governments continue—and rightfully so—to focus on the threats to African nations from the Ebola virus and Boko Haram, policymakers are also eyeing the continent as a critical producer and consumer of energy in the 21st century.

Power Africa

In 2013, President Obama announced an initiative, “Power Africa,” to direct U.S. funds, loan guarantees, and technical assistance to electrification projects in Sub-Saharan Africa. The program is coordinated by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), with 12 different agencies involved in project implementation. Power Africa’s goal is to facilitate the installment of 10,000 MW of new generation capacity. To date, the program has closed on financial transactions that will generate 2,792 MW.

On August 5, 2014, President Obama announced another $300 million in federal funding for Power Africa, along with an additional $12 billion in contributions from private corporations and government institutions. That brings the program’s total funding commitments to approximately $26 billion. The Administration hopes that sum translates into 30,000 MW of capacity, or three times the program’s original stated goal.

All-of-the-Above Approach?

One question that has arisen is whether the Administration’s low-carbon energy policy would lead to preferences for low-carbon, but also likely more expensive, energy choices for Power Africa.   However, despite the Administration’s standing policy against financing the construction of new coal-fired power plants overseas, projects are underway to construct new oil- and gas-fired units in African nations such as Uganda and Mozambique.

Interest on Capitol Hill

On May 8, 2014, the House passed the Electrify Africa Act of 2014 (H.R. 2548) on a 297-117 vote. The bill established a policy of U.S. support for 20,000 MW of new capacity in Sub-Saharan Africa by 2020. H.R. 2548 did not take an explicit stance on the types of energy the U.S. should consider; instead the text of the bill used the phrase “appropriate mix of power solutions.”

On June 24, 2014, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee discharged the Energize Africa Act of 2014 (S. 2508). It never reached the Senate floor. S. 2508 largely mirrored the House bill in its intent and organization, except that the phrase “appropriate mix of power solutions” is replaced with “an all-of-the-above energy development strategy for sub-Saharan Africa that includes the use of oil, natural gas, coal, hydroelectric, wind, solar, and geothermal power, and other sources of energy.”

On November 14, 2014, the U.S. House Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights, and International Organizations held a hearing entitled “The Future of Energy in Africa.” Representatives from the Department of State, USAID, and the Department of Energy (DOE) were invited to testify. All three agency-representatives spoke to the remarkable progress that’s been made in bringing electricity to rural African populations through Power Africa projects.  In particular, DOE’s Assistant Secretary for International Affairs, Jonathan Elkind, noted that significant natural gas discoveries have recently been made in Sub-Saharan Africa that are “generating excitement in global markets and Africa’s growing economies.”  To help foster this development, DOE Assistant Secretary for Fossil Energy, Chris Smith, is expected to travel to Africa in 2015 to share “best practices” on oil and gas production.

Looking Forward

With a new Congress charting its priorities for 2015, we can expect continued interest in Africa’s energy future.  It is a virtual certainty that Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-CA) and Ranking Member Eliot Engel (D-NY) will reintroduce the Electrify Africa Act this year and, with geopolitical events ongoing in Africa, we will likely see more hearings discussing how to leverage the continent’s energy resources to increase stability and economic opportunity for some of the poorest and most threatened populations on the planet.  There is certainly a possibility that energy development in Africa can become one area of rare agreement between the Obama Administration and a Republican Congress.