The US government has announced commitments by 27 investors as part of a goal of doubling electricity access in sub-Saharan Africa. US companies have promised US$1 billion over five years for off-grid power projects, with a focus on small-scale and renewable energy. At the same time there has been pressure to ease restrictions against funding of carbon-intense projects, with critics stating that it is otherwise unrealistic to ramp up generation in Africa.

“With close to 600 million people without access to modern-day electricity, it is clear that centralised grid access is not a comprehensive solution for these countries in one of the world’s least urban continents,” US energy secretary Ernest Moniz says. “Through solutions including off-grid and small scale energy projects, we can bring electricity to these rural areas.”

The commitments of more than US$1 billion over five years will include investments in solar and small-scale hydro power stations, training of African specialists and crowdsourcing of funds to support local power providers.

John Podesta, a counsellor to US president Barrack Obama, said that falling costs of renewable energy as well as advances in power storage and other technologies had made off-grid options increasingly attractive. “While the market is still young, it holds great promise to follow the mobile phone in leapfrogging centralized infrastructure across Africa,” Podesta says.

Obama, on a trip to Africa a year ago, announced that the United States would mobilize US$7 billion in mostly private funds over five years to bring electricity to at least 20 million more homes and businesses. The electricity effort enjoys broad US support, with the Republican-led House of Representatives approving legislation last month with an even more ambitious goal of bringing electricity to 50 million Africans.

But corporations have pushed for US-backed financial institutions to ease restrictions against funding of carbon-intense projects that contribute to climate change, saying it is unrealistic to ramp up generation in Africa without significant investments in gas and power grids. Environmentalists have countered that the initiative offers a chance to try a new approach amid predictions that Africa’s poorest will be hit hard by climate change.

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