As of 2019, there are 759 million people without access to electricity, 77% of whom live in sub-Saharan Africa. Sub-Saharan African economies consume only 6% as many fossil fuels as advanced economies. Building out cheap energy infrastructure confers benefits that improve the welfare of the worst-off at scale in ways that 'randomista' orgs like Give Directly, AMF, etc. cannot do, such as by improving energy-dependent sectors like health, agriculture, industry, sanitation, and access to clean water. Energy access in Africa is the killer app for sustainable economic development.
Despite this, China announced plans in 2021 to stop all overseas coal financing around the same time the EU announced plans to limit investments in fossil fuels and the U.S. guided the World Bank and other multilateral development banks to block overseas financing for all coal, oil, and most natural gas projects.
Balancing the short-term need for economic growth in Sub-Saharan Africa with the long-term need to mitigate carbon emissions is one of the trickiest balances to strike in international development. I argue that we can rectify this by working with African institutions and leaders at the local level, instead of treating Africa as a single, static data point.
African countries need immediate access to abundant, always available, and cost-effective power. There are some countries, like Ethiopia are endowed with vast hydroelectric and geothermal resources, while Nigeria will have no economically and technically feasible clean energy alternative to natural gas.
In African Arguments, Lily Ordano, director of Clean Air Task Force's (CATF) Energy and Climate Innovation Program in Africa notes that “most of the climate and energy transition models that shape global dialogues treat Africa as a single, static data point, failing to capture the heterogeneity of the 54 independent countries’ diverse energy endowments and growth aspirations. Worse still, these influential analyses implicitly assume continued poverty and low consumption.”
She continues, “African countries need immediate access to abundant, always available, and cost-effective power… While Africa is a low emitter of greenhouse gases, the time is also ripe to build foundations for the development of zero-carbon power, readying the continent for wide adoption as these technologies become economically feasible. This can help African countries circumvent the lock-in effects associated with building more fossil-based energy infrastructure.”
Infrastructure policy expert Rick Geddes concurred with the statement that “the most important thing that might be done to rectify absolute poverty and maybe to mitigate relative poverty would be the provision of energy as cheaply as possible and the second most important would be the universal provision of efficient [energy] infrastructure.”
It is difficult to estimate the impact of work in this area beforehand, although I think it's plausible that well-targeted interventions (such as the ones I review below) could provide comparable or superior leverage to SCI, AMF, etc. This is because while distributed interventions can be incredibly effective at a small scale, I believe that building out high-quality infrastructure is imperative for long-term sustainable development.
Only 14% of climate finance has gone to the least developed countries in sub-Saharan Africa, with the lion’s share going to industrialized, middle-income countries. There are still billions of dollars available, but much of the funding comes from paternalistic international organizations like the World Bank, etc. I would estimate that there is currently only a few hundred thousand to a few million dollars of funding for interventions that are working to catalyze effective engagement in climate action from African countries, which will ultimately rest on their ability to set their own agenda and act on solutions suited to their contexts.
Clean Air Task Force (Energy Access program)
Clean Air Task Force does incredibly high-leverage work in this area. They partner with African institutions of higher learning, research organizations, and the private sector to establish technology innovation hubs in West and East Africa to facilitate the development and commercialization of zero-carbon technologies in Africa, work with utilities in sub-Saharan Africa to adopt innovative strategies for improving utility performance and financial health, integrating regional power grids, and boosting consumption from commercial and industrial consumers to reduce the per-unit cost of power, and partner with African institutions to build knowledge and advocate for inclusive energy access and decarbonization agenda that is tailored to Africa’s development needs and responsive to global climate goals.
Clean Air Task Force has had a phenomenal record with climate interventions thus far, although their energy access program has not yet been rated for cost-effectiveness. CATF takes a delightfully nuanced approach, understanding the imperative for rapid development with long-term climate goals, and only acts in the capacity of assisting high-quality African institutions to chart their own course.
The most recent report from the IPCC states that “Nuclear energy… could make an increasing contribution to carbon-free electricity and heat in the future.… A robust mix of energy sources (fossil, renewable and nuclear), combined with improved end-use efficiency will almost certainly be required to meet the growing demand for energy services, particularly in many developing countries.”
Unfortunately, the interim between the time it takes to identify a site, obtain a site permit, purchase or lease the land, obtain a construction permit, obtain financing and insurance for construction, install transmission, negotiate a power purchase agreement obtain permits, build the plant, connect it to transmission, and obtain a final operating license is prohibitively long to be seriously considered as a universal energy source in the near future.
Enter Small Modular Reactors (SMRs). SMRs are built on an assembly line and can be transported anywhere in the world, and they produce 50-100 megawatts of electricity, enough to power 25-100,000 homes. Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) have a projected construction time of 3-5 years - roughly comparable to utility-scale renewable projects. And because these reactors can be built off-site - as opposed to tropical pressurized water reactors, which must be built on-site - once construction is completed they can provide electricity almost instantly.
The major challenge to democratizing access to nuclear energy globally is that you need immense technical expertise - site planners, nuclear engineers, physicists, power plant operators, distributors, dispatchers, and more - to construct and operate a nuclear power plant. SMRs are far more hands-off. They can run for 30 years without refueling, as opposed to just 18 months for traditional reactors. They are also fabricated in factories and can be easily transported, which means that if these resources aren’t available in the regions where SMRs are, they can be installed on-site. This is far more workable for developing economies.
A traditional nuclear reactor requires 2.6 square kilometers of land. By contrast, SMRs require only 0.3 square kilometers of land to operate and are housed underground. It is possible to construct a reactor with a single module or use units in combination for greater power output. Additional modular units can be added and brought online incrementally for greater power output. This means that SMRs can be adapted to communities’ individual energy needs and require reduced upfront capital investment, yet another advantage for developing countries.
SMRs can also provide round-the-clock electricity at only $67/MWh, about half the price of traditional nuclear reactors.
A grant to an organization to work with African leaders to deploy SMRs at scale could be an effective use of OpenPhil funds, although I am highly uncertain of this.
Questions to Explore
- Could continued material growth amount to an “anthropogenic insult to ecosystems” (as economic analyst Vaclav Smil has suggested) whereby the strain on the biosphere is not worth the attendant benefits of economic growth from the aforementioned interventions?
- Could rapid economic growth exacerbate the risk or severity of a Great Power War, as countries in Africa quickly grow their militaries?
- Could there be a risk of nuclear proliferation from Small Modular Reactors?
- Could energy access be a high-leverage tool to prevent pandemics as well, because of improved sanitation and health systems?
- Although we should beware of suspicious and surprising convergence.