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General Electric Powers Africa Off-Grid Energy Challenge

Tina Casey headshotWords by Tina Casey
Data & Technology

It's barely 18 months old, but President Barack Obama's Power Africa initiative is already in position to help propel African nations into a renewable energy future. In the latest development, Power Africa has announced 22 renewable energy innovators who have received grants of up to $100,000 each under the Power Africa Off-Grid Energy Challenge. The grants are partly funded by General Electric.

If you take a peek behind the curtain, though, you'll see that natural gas also plays a featured role in the broader Power Africa initiative. That doevetails with GE's involvement, since aside from funding renewable energy projects the company has also begun to market a fossil-powered, transportable generating unit in Africa under its Ecomagination energy innovation program.

So, does this mean GE is competing with itself, or are there other factors at play in the Africa off-grid energy market?

Power Africa

President Obama announced Power Africa in Cape Town, South Africa in June 2013, with the ambitious goal of doubling the number of people with access to electricity in the sub-Sahara region.

The U.S. and other financial partners have committed a total of $20 billion in loans and other financial support for the first five-year phase, which ends in 2018. Additionally, the U.S. Department of Energy and other U.S. government agencies are involved in providing technical support.

By the numbers, Power Africa aims to add more than 30,000 megawatts of "cleaner" energy generation in the region, connecting more than 60 million homes and businesses to a source of electricity.

Although a strong focus on local and off-grid capacity is key to the initiative, the Power Africa vision also includes building larger generating stations as well as transmission and distribution infrastructure.

The initiative is aimed at leveraging the region's rich energy resources, specifically wind, solar, hydropower, natural gas and geothermal.

The inclusion of natural gas is no accident, and it's also worth noting that at least some petroleum development is included in Power Africa's broader mission:

Power Africa also is partnering with Uganda and Mozambique on responsible oil and gas resource management.

It's also worth noting that the inclusion of natural gas as a "cleaner" fuel is itself problematic. Greenhouse gases and other pollutants are demonstrably lower for natural gas at the burn point compared to coal or petroleum, but evidence is increasing that the burn-point benefits are cancelled out by fugitive emissions all along the natural gas supply chain.

In addition, given that South Africa has one of the world's largest untapped shale gas potentials, the environmental impacts and risks of shale gas fracking could also come into play under the Power Africa umbrella.

The Power Africa Off-Grid Energy Challenge

While Power Africa is not exclusively a renewable energy initiative, the Power Africa Off-Grid Energy Challenge does offer a glimpse of Africa's future if clean energy technology can beat out natural gas and other fossil fuels in the marketplace.

The Power Africa Off-Grid Energy Challenge focused on agriculture and other commercial uses in Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Liberia, Nigeria and Tanzania.

The winning projects include 14 solar, six biogas, one wind turbine system and one small hydro.

In Ghana, for example, funding went to the Solar Light Co. to enable local production of its Sunana solar-powered mobile device charger for street vendors. An off-grid town will get a biomass gassifier to provide electricity for locally-made palm oil products, and a new solar installation will power water purification and drip irrigation systems for another village.

GE and the Power Africa Off-Grid Energy Challenge

In all, the 22 projects are expected to add 3.4 megawatts of new electricity for rural communities.

Clearly 3.4 megawatts is a drop in the bucket compared to Power Africa's 30,000 megawatt goal, especially in the context of the need for rapid deployment to meet rapidly increasing demand.

That's why we don't think GE is exactly punching itself in the face by funding renewable energy projects while marketing a gas-fired transportable generator in the same region.

By fostering general economic growth, off-grid renewable energy projects will have a positive impact on growth in energy demand overall, and until renewables push fossil fuels out of the market that demand gap will be filled by rapidly deployable generators.

GE introduced its gas-fired generator in 2012 as part of its innovative Ecomagination portfolio, with lower emissions (at least at the burn point) making it an attractive alternative to diesel generators.

The generator is just part of GE's PowerXpand "power in a pinch" gas-fired portfolio designed specifically for Africa and other emerging markets. The product line also includes aeroderivative gas turbines as well as the company's Jenbacher and Waukesha gas engines.

Image credit (screen shot): courtesy of US African Development Foundation.

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Tina Casey headshotTina Casey

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.

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