Next week is make-or-break for the United States to show an actual alternative to Chinese-backed infrastructure. President Biden will host 49 African leaders December 13-15 in an orchestrated effort to show that the United States is no longer disengaged with the continent and to rebuild trust with a region where one in four people will live by mid-century. Although multiple crises hang over the summit, accelerating Africa’s energy transition will be high on the agenda. I don’t expect major announcements of any big new energy or climate programs, but here are three things I’ll be watching:
- Will the US signal an interest in building energy partnerships beyond South Africa? The US has committed $1 billion, mainly in future loans from the US Development Finance Corporation (DFC), to South Africa to help that country accelerate coal plant retirement and shift to renewable energy. The overall package negotiated with South Africa and the Europeans – known as a Just Energy Transition Partnership of JETP – is supposed to be a model for supporting other countries to build clean power systems for the future. But, so far, it’s only benefitting one African country, while Indonesia and Vietnam are reportedly next. What about the other 48 countries with even greater energy needs? If the US is really only interested in closing coal plants, there’s very little on offer for other African countries.
- Where are the renewable energy projects? All energy projects are facing major headwinds right now, including high interest rates, supply chain disruptions, and knock-on effects of rising debt risk. But under Biden, the DFC, America’s principal tool for investing in infrastructure, has supported just one utility-scale renewable energy project on the entire continent: a 20 MW solar + storage facility in Malawi. While there may be few shovel-ready projects right now, the summit could be a moment to kick-start early-stage project support. A passive approach, waiting for bankable projects to walk in the DFC’s front door, is not good enough.
- How is the US putting its newly-clarified technology flexibility into practice? The Biden Africa strategy deliberately includes support for “gas-to-power infrastructure,” but there aren’t any gas projects either. The only power plant approved over the past two years has been one small thermal facility in Sierra Leone. With a resurgence in gas projects serving Europe, including those using exported African gas, the continent cannot just be a source for fuelling economic growth of other, richer regions. As with renewables, some US nod to building genuine energy security partnerships could go a long way.