Good Electricity Grids Make Good Neighbors

Daniel Kammen of University of California, Berkeley, Nov 20, 2013

In the poem “Mending Wall,” Robert Frost asserted that “good fences make good neighbors.”  World history is replete with foreign policy built around physical walls, from Emperor Hadrian, to the Great Wall of China, to the Berlin Wall, the wall between Palestine and Israeli, to the U.S.-Mexico border.  Containment and isolation have often been the cornerstones of policy.

Today we face a different situation, where “front lines” of conflict have blurred and disappeared, and non-state actors dominate the threat-scape. Instability in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Kenya, Somalia, and elsewhere requires a different form of engagement. Important steps have been made in peace-building and post-conflict resolution, but so far we have not taken advantage of a major opportunity to use some of our greatest infrastructure investments to build peaceful, prosperous, and cooperative regional economies.

That asset is the electricity transmission and distribution system, or “the grid.” The irony is that while the grid has been recognized as the greatest engineering achievement of the twentieth century, building partnerships through shared energy commerce has been until now an afterthought, at best. This has to change, for security, economic growth, environmental, and ethical reasons.

When I served as the chief technical specialist for renewable energy and energy efficiency at the World Bank, a project of special interest to me was the construction of an electricity highway between the rich geothermal energy fields of the Rift Valley in Kenya, through the Lake Turkana plains where the best wind resource identified to date in Africa was recently mapped, to newly constructed hydroelectric facilities in Ethiopia.  Not only are these indigenous renewable energy resources largely untapped, but the policy tools to build clean energy markets could have some of their most effective deployment in poor, power-starved nations. (See related post: “TV Show ‘Revolution’ Teams Up With United Nations to Shine Light on a World Without Power.”)

As Kenya and Ethiopia negotiated, the opportunity to build a regional clean energy market picked up speed, with both nations seeing the benefits of indigenous, regional energy capacity that was stable. Domestic renewable energy also would result in greater job creation than continued reliance and exposure to the price fluctuations of imported fossil fuels.

Last week, the Africa Development Bank announced a $1.2 billion dollar loan to fully fund the 1,000-kilometer (621-mile) line that will provide 2,000 megawatts (MW) of transfer capacity in either direction. That is more transfer capacity than either nation currently has generating capacity, and the line will critically link the best renewable energy resource field in each country.  Today both nations are progressing on their feed-in tariff policies to reward clean energy development, and a wider East African Power Pool is emerging to coordinate energy sales among up to 20 African nations.

Donor nations need to make projects of this nature an international development priority.  Not only are roughly 1.5 billion people living today without electricity access worldwide, and perhaps another billion have access on paper, but the reliability and the cost of service keeps the resource out of reach. (See related post; “’Recharged’: Linkin Park’s Efforts on Energy Poverty Get Brighter.”) President Obama’s Powering Africa initiative is a tremendous start on such a platform of engagement, but it needs to aggressively expand into transmission and distribution grid infrastructure, not just power generation. (See related blog post: “As U.S. Plans $7 Billion Effort to Electrify Africa, It Faces Challenges at Home.”)

Critical opportunities now exist to build cooperative regional economies, build local industry, and address the global climate crisis. South Sudan is a striking case in point.  At an important visioning and partnership conference held at Chatham House in London in September, 2013, the point was driven home that engagement with fragile states around infrastructure is a far better investment than triage-based emergency assistance, or in ‘wall-mentality’ projects that seek to insulate nations from regional instability.

South Sudan will hold a vitally important investors’ conference in early December.  At that meeting, overwhelming attention will be given to the so-far failed dialogue with President Omar al-Bashir’s government in Khartoum over the oil fields and pipeline.

Instead, investors could focus on connecting South Sudan to the emerging East African Power Pool through transmission projects that would permit the world’s newest nation to pivot away from the ever-tense relationship with Sudan. Instead, the new independent nation could build a network like Kenya and Ethiopia are doing, where solar, wind, geothermal, and other indigenous energy. It could cheaply power the local economy where less than two percent of the population has electricity today.

The grid alone will not meet South Sudan’s energy demands. As in much of the developing world, off-grid communities will persist, so attention to the grid needs to be balanced with efforts to build home and village energy mini-grids and individual energy products, and to ensure that ‘sustainable’ is the hallmark of hydropower and bioenergy projects that are developed.

South Sudan is far from the country where a policy of engagement around energy infrastructure can yield huge development and peace dividends. Kosovo, the poorest nation in Europe, has been a battleground over a proposed coal-fired power plant. In October 2013, the U. S. joined several European nations in releasing white papers and policy directives restricting international lending for coal-based projects, as has the World Bank. Kosovo has significant wind, biomass and hydropower, much of which would most efficiently be developed jointly with Albania. This approach would make the former coal plant project–a pollution-belcher only six kilometers (3.7 miles) from the capital city, using poor-quality coal and adding to the burden of disease– an unnecessary anachronism.

Nations linked by energy commerce, and in particular clean, local energy are at far lower risk to enter into hostilities than those who see each other only as regional rivals.  Thus, while Robert Frost and his neighbor may have both found safety in the wall, their most productive cooperation came when they “meet to walk the line.”  The U. S., U. K., and other governments seeking to build strong international partnerships would be well to make transmission diplomacy and development a centerpiece of foreign policy.

Daniel Kammen is the Director of the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory, and Distinguished Professor of Energy at the University of California, Berkeley, and was the inaugural Chief Technical Specialist for Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency at the World Bank.  He is a member of the IPCC, which shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize. He is also on the advisory council of the Great Energy Challenge.