A New Approach to the Global Power Crisis
Huffington Post, 12/12/2013
As you read this, a power outage is affecting much of Africa and South
Asia. After hundreds of billions of aid dollars have been spent on
energy projects, 1.4 billion people continue to live in a state of
permanent blackout. Development finance has focused on big power plants
that destroy the environment and bypass the rural poor. This week civil
society groups are making a push for a new approach to the global energy
The Grand Inga Dam on the Congo River exemplifies the traditional
top-down approach to the energy sector. With a capacity of 40,000
megawatts and a cost of 80 billion dollars, the project could provide
electricity to 500 million African consumers through the world's vastest
transmission network. Its promoters say that it could end Africa's power
outage in one fell swoop towards the end of the next decade.
The World Bank has already expressed an interest in funding the Inga 3
Dam, the first stage of the Grand Inga scheme. It has identified Inga 3
as a model project for the energy sector in Africa and South Asia. The
Bank is currently trying to raise billions of dollars in government
contributions for its IDA fund, from which it plans to finance the Inga
Before governments pledge their energy dollars to the World Bank's IDA
fund, they should think again. If the Grand Inga scheme ever gets
completed, it can provide 500 million consumers with 80 watts at a cost
of 160 dollars each. High-quality solar lanterns combined with cell
phone chargers currently sell for less than one third of this price - 15
years before Grand Inga turns on any lights.
Like wind and micro-hydropower projects, solar home systems don't rely
on expensive centralized grids to supply energy to rural communities.
Millions of them are already being installed throughout Africa and South
Asia. The price of such technologies would drop much further if the
World Bank or any other sponsor ordered 500 million systems.
With power projects, it is not just the benefits to consumers that
matter, but the impacts on society at large. The Grand Inga scheme would
rely on imported technology, and would employ a few hundred technicians
to operate its power plants. In addition, thousands of guards would be
required to protect plants and 8,000 miles of transmission lines from
terror attacks and pilferage. An order of 500 million solar home
systems, in comparison, could create hundreds of thousands of productive
jobs throughout the supply chain.
Social impacts don't end with job creation. Transparency International,
the anti-corruption watchdog, has identified large public works as the
most bribery-prone economic sector - more corrupt in fact than oil or
weapons trading. The Democratic Republic of Congo has a sorry history of
grand corruption in infrastructure projects, and its existing Inga 1 and
2 dams are suffering from huge cost overruns. In comparison,
decentralized energy solutions are at a scale that can be managed and
controlled by the fledgling institutions of fragile states.
Why, then, are the World Bank and other financiers promoting the complex
and expensive Inga project? From a self-interested perspective banks
find it easier to finance billion-dollar projects with limited overhead
than cheap and effective supply chains for poor consumers. Maybe more
importantly, poor African farmers serve to justify the mega-dams, but
they are not their intended beneficiaries.
The Inga 3 Dam, which the World Bank has designated as a model project,
will supply electricity to the Congolese mining industry and South
African cities, not the rural poor. Industrial consumers need
centralized power stations, not decentralized renewable systems. Even
the transmission lines of the Grand Inga scheme will carry electricity
at such a high voltage that they cannot supply power to the regions they
bisect at affordable rates.
Donor governments will meet in Moscow on December 16-17 to pledge their
contributions for the International Development Association, the World
Bank fund for the poorest countries. These negotiations offer an
opportunity to change course. Governments should shift their support for
energy projects from the World Bank to institutions such as the new
Green Climate Fund and the Energizing Development consortium, which are
better placed to promote clean local energy solutions that benefit the
poor. They also need to establish strict guidelines and standards at the
new climate fund.
Civil society groups are calling for a change of course in global energy
finance through a global petition, advocacy work and a protest in
Moscow. Their approach has worked before. In the 1990s the World Bank
pulled out of mega-dams after governments threatened to cut their
contributions over destructive projects in India and the Amazon. Public
pressure then saved many precious ecosystems and local communities from
destruction. In the meantime, better alternatives have become readily
available. You can sign the global petition at bit.ly/IDA17.
[Visit www.internationalrivers.org/node/8175 for more information and
to sign a petition on the topic.]
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