On Africa, Energy and Sustainability

On October 13th and 14th, I represented the Worldwatch Institute at the 4th Annual International Conference on Energy, Logistics and the Environment.  The conference was held in Denver, Colorado, and it was well attended by stakeholders, government officials, natural gas industry experts, innovators and entrepreneurs, academics and other interested parties.  The conference was organized by the Global Commerce Forum and was given the theme, A Sustainable Energy Future for Emerging Economies: Focus on Africa.  Discussion focused on the imperatives for clean energy development in emerging economies.  Traditionally, industrialized nations developed via fossil-fuel energy.  Industrialization fostered economic growth and prosperity in the developed world.  Many industrialized nations have prospered largely because heavily subsidized fossil-fuels have provided for affordable and reliable energy.  However, environmental concerns are driving industrialized nations to seek new energy sources and infrastructure to develop clean environments.

With its focus on Africa, the conference sought to answer one of the contentious questions in international discourse on energy development: ‘should emerging and developing nations develop their energy infrastructure from these same traditional energy sources, or are there now other, better options available to them?’  In his opening remarks, Don McClure, Vice President of Government & Stakeholder Relations & Legal of EnCana Oil & Gas (USA) Inc, indicated that Africa is in a unique position to invest in critical thinking that produces a “leap frog” in innovation.  He also indicated that Africa is in an enviable position to avoid the pitfalls associated with fossil fuel development through lessons learned from developed countries.  In a keynote address presented by former Governor of Colorado and Director of the Center for the New Energy Economy, Colorado State University, Bill Ritter, the intersection between access to energy services and education was highlighted. Governor Ritter also indicated that access to modern energy services is important in that it facilitates educational opportunities for children in developing countries. He stressed the need for an economy powered by clean fuels and public health in Africa.  He concluded by stating that there can be ‘no economic development without reliable power.’

The conference also served as an opportunity to assess natural gas resource potential in previously unexplored areas in Africa.  Michael Brownfield, of the United States Geological Survey, displayed vital maps showing the natural gas potentials in Tanzania, Mozambique, the Nile River and the Benue area of Nigeria.  This survey is of particular importance to Worldwatch’s work on the Natural Gas and Sustainable Energy Initiative headed by Christopher Flavin and Saya Kitasei, as Worldwatch is currently scoping out projects that seeks to develop Low Carbon Energy Roadmaps for countries in West Africa.  A core component of this project is the presence and use of natural gas as an alternative to other high-carbon fossil fuels.  Peter Stark of IHS-CERA discussed world gas market factors that have been responsible for the acceleration of natural gas as an alternative energy source.

Michael Callahan of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and Heidi VanGenderen of the American Council on Renewable Energy discussed the available renewable energy resources in Africa.  Callahan discussed the huge potential for large-scale hydro projects in the Democratic Republic of Congo and for large concentrating solar power projects in the Sahara desert.  VanGenderen discussed the potential for energy efficient hydropower in Africa.  Doug Vilsack of Elephant Energy, a company that provides small-scale renewable products, such as solar powered flashlights, lanterns, cell-phone battery chargers and clean burning cook stoves to Namibia, also discussed the challenges of marketing renewable energy products in Africa. Vilsack mentioned that convincing rural dwellers to invest in solar-powered products over traditional biomass could be daunting. He also mentioned that ensuring the products did not end up in dumpsites was a challenge that the organization continually addresses.

The complementary nature of natural gas and renewable energy was also discussed.  In many contexts, particularly in Africa, natural gas and renewable energy resources can play complementary roles in reducing CO2 emissions. This is because natural gas that is currently flared or vented can be captured and used to increase energy access on the continent, thereby reducing much of the continent’s dependency on coal and oil. The panel expressed the opinion that natural gas should be the base-load fuel for energy demand, while renewable resources, such as wind and solar power, can successfully be integrated into the grid to meet intermediate and peaking loads.

On the second day of the conference, I addressed sustainable energy challenges in Africa.  Drawing upon my experience as an attorney working in the energy sector in Nigeria, I brought attention to the pervasive dearth of experts in the field of sustainable energy policy in Nigeria, and indeed, in most of Africa.  I also addressed the issues of energy security, resource control and tribal land laws in Africa and how these factors affect energy access in much of Africa.  In particular, I discussed the difficulties encountered by African companies in raising equity or debt financing for sustainable energy projects from developed countries and how this discourages many energy companies from developing and implementing sustainable energy projects.

Stakeholders expressed confidence that natural gas and renewable resources can power the whole of Africa, helping the continent to mitigate the environmental pitfalls associated with other types of fossil fuel development.  It was agreed that this will require significant investments in the energy sector that may require public- private partnerships (PPP’s) and institutional funding.  The conference also agreed that much of Africa may need to overhaul its energy policies to attract both local and foreign investments in the energy sector.

Worldwatch’s attendance and participation at the conference will benefit our work in Africa in several ways.  Not only was I was able to highlight our work on natural gas and sustainable energy initiatives in the region, but I was also able to connect with both old and new contacts in the natural gas industry to discuss policy mechanisms for a low carbon energy future in Africa.  The conference also served to highlight current projects on the ground in Africa and how, slowly but surely, a low carbon energy future is being developed in remote areas of Africa.

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