Time for the U.S. to Turn on the Lights in Africa

Time for the U.S. to Turn on the Lights in Africa
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Political pundits are scandalized this week by Washington's failure to address the immigration issue along the long southern border before breaking for a five-week Congressional recess and, for President Barack Obama, a Martha's Vineyard respite. Bipartisanship, we're told, is dead. Let the Sunday talk show vitriol flow, and the eulogies begin.

But like Twain's death, reports of bipartisanship's demise are greatly exaggerated. Witness a bill with broad bipartisan support that passed the U.S. House, 297-117, back in May: the Electrify Africa Act. With the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit beginning today in Washington, a statement by both U.S. parties to speed the passage of Electrify Africa would be a timely show that bipartisanship is still possible.

How bipartisan is this bill? The statute was drafted by California Congressman Ed Royce -- who rates a perfect 100 on the Conservative Action voting scorecard -- and passed the House with Democrats voting in favor, 191-1. When a bill finds Representative Bobby Rush -- former "defense minister" of the Black Panthers -- voting on the same side as Steve Stockman, self-proclaimed "most conservative congressman in Texas," it's time to take note. Throw in President Obama, whose Power Africa initiative parallels much of the bill, and Bono, whose One Campaign also backs it, and the Senate should fast track Electrify Africa to the president's desk.

In all likelihood, the rare display of bipartisan consensus comes from the sheer calamity it aims to address: a continent of one billion people without electricity. It beggars the imagination in the year 2014, but let's try: Google an image of Africa at night, seen from space. Beneath the shimmering cities of Europe, and a scattering of lights across the northern Sahara, runs a pitch-black streak east from the Atlantic to Khartoum, and south from the Sahara to South Africa. Substitute "pitch-black streak east from San Francisco to Washington" and "south from Toronto to Mexico City." Now, remember how we symbolically turn our lights off for one hour every Earth Day? Flip the switch, and leave it off.

For good.

That mind exercise is as close as we'll come to knowing what it means for a continent to live in the dark.

The United Nations puts the present population of the entire continent at 1,099,755,000. The 99,755,000 rounding-error we typically leave out when speaking of "1 billion Africans" is equal to the entire population of 23 U.S. states west of the Mississippi, including California.

What will Electrify Africa do to bring power to the continent? In the words of Congressman Eliot Engle, Democrat of New York and ranking minority member on the House Foreign Affairs Committee:

"[The] long-term strategy will focus not only on providing incentives for the private sector to build more power plants, but also on increasing African government accountability and transparency, improving regulatory environments, and increasing access to electricity in rural and poor communities through small, renewable energy projects."

The bill backs what it terms "an appropriate mix of power solutions to provide sufficient electricity access to people living in rural and urban areas in order to alleviate poverty and drive economic growth."

But not everyone is happy with this ode to bipartisanship. And it's that "appropriate mix of power solutions" -- an all-of-the-above openness to providing electricity through coal, natural gas and oil, as well as renewables like water, wind and solar power -- that some environmental advocates find anything but appropriate.

Take The Nation, which calls the bill "a giveaway to the fossil fuel industry." Or Earthlife Africa, which -- The Nation notes approvingly -- posits that by 2050, renewable energy could be providing for 50 percent of Africa's energy needs.

Let the word ring forth in the darkened villages and the unlit streets of urban Africa: Hang in there. Your energy problem will be -- halfway -- solved, in just 26 years. It's a smug solution from First Worlders who fancy themselves as saving Humanity from itself. Just don't let the odd breath-drawing man, woman or child get in the way of the crusade.

But let's look beneath the Green slogans at what the absence of access to electricity means for far too many Africans. It means mothers burning animal dung for heat, even while long-term exposure to the airborne particulate matter in dung cake "has been associated with increased rates of acute respiratory infections, chronic obstructive lung disease and cancer." As for burning wood for fuel, according to the United Nations, 12 million hectares is lost each year to desertification, most of it in Africa. The lack of electric refrigeration in vast parts of Africa limits the diets of malnourished children, raises the prospect of food-borne illness and prevents the storage of life-saving medications.

It's not hyperbole to say that the lack of power is a leading cause of early death in Africa.

But give some Green groups a choice between an energy company getting a contract today to build a coal power plant or a natural gas pipeline to bring power to a rural village in Chad or Guinea-Bissau, or waiting until 2050 to bring renewable power online, and the answer is depressingly predictable. It's wind and solar hands-down, and good luck to an entire generation of African children hoping to live into adulthood.

But we all know that governments wherever they are cannot do everything for everyone. So let's look at the question of cost, advanced by some of Electrify Africa's congressional opponents. The Congressional Budget Office scored out Electrify Africa as saving $86 million over six years -- $14 million a year -- factoring for the foreign aid it would replace. And even if the bill cost the U.S. $14 million a year, in a federal budget that spends more than $10 billion a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year, Electrify Africa would cost approximately two minutes' worth of federal spending -- less than the U.S. spends in the time it took to read this column.

Perhaps Congress can flex some bipartisan muscle when it returns from recess and pass the Electrify Africa Act in the Senate. There are at least 1,099,755,000 reasons to get it done.

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