By Alicia Criado, Policy Associate, Economic and Employment Policy Project
"African countries should not allow foreign companies from picking out countries to exploit. Nations must link up and come up with common solutions and opportunities." --His Excellency Benjamin Mkapa, former president of Tanzania
Late last month I traveled to Johannesburg, South Africa for the African Presidential Roundtable 2012. My trip was remarkable and eye-opening on so many levels. I not only had to mentally prepare for the energy discussions but also for an environment still on the path of recovery and repair, given South Africa's tumultuous and horrific history with Apartheid. The opportunity to learn more about Africa's challenges around energy security made it clear that if approached carefully and strategically, the continent could be on the brink of monumental changes and advances.
This year's meeting continued and built upon on last year's topic, "21st Century Energy Agenda for Africa." As a fellow with the Center for American Progress Leadership Institute, I was among several official observers in attendance who got to rub elbows with former African presidents and learn more about energy efficiency and sustainability from myriad energy experts from around the globe.
Some of the convening's main unanswered questions hit home. Similar to many African countries, the U.S. has yet to decide what energy model is best to ensure access and sustainability, how to ensure that vulnerable populations are included and benefit, and lastly who should control energy systems.
During the roundtable, I was continually reminded how far behind Africa is compared to other regions of the world in electricity use and access. In fact, it is predicted that the number of people without access to energy in this region will rise to between 90 and 100 million by 2030. And without access to electricity, the poor are robbed of the most basic of human rights and of economic opportunities to advance their standard of living. However, the continentâs overreliance on fossil fuels is also degrading the environment. For example, I learned that about 72% of South Africa's electricity comes from coal-fired power stations. The irony is that Africa is the world's largest reservoir of natural resources. According to His Excellency Benjamin Mkapa, the former president of Tanzania, having energy does not mean energy security, and it underscores that "African countries should not allow foreign companies from picking out countries to exploit. Nations must link up and come up with common solutions and opportunities." Today, many African nations are beginning to explore and tap into new energy sources, as well as explore clean technologies, but a gap in collaborative efforts remains. Moreover, many are skeptical about whether nations will direct adequate levels of new revenue toward infrastructure projects to improve the quality of life for an overwhelming majority of Africans, or instead leave impoverished communities poorer than they are now.
Beyond cost and quality of life, the development of new energy strategies must consider ownership. During the roundtable, it was encouraging to hear His Excellency Mkapa express his adamant views about Africa developing a transition plan to move to ârenewable sources and ultimately establish ownership in order to ensure sustainability, accessibility, accountability, and security.â By the end of the convening, it was clear that to develop community buy-in and support for renewable energy projects, an increase in local development through community ownership is necessary. In turn, community power is built, literally, and local economies are strengthened. Similar to African nations, Latino communities in the U.S. stand to benefit from investments to increase community ownership of energy projects. There are many opportunities budding up throughout the country, some literally in your backyard. As I transition back from my travels, I look forward to continuing the clean energy conversations with Hispanic communities and to planting some seeds around helping Latinos realize how they can start harnessing their own power locally.