A Free-Market Energy Blog

Powering Countries, Empowering People: A Case Study (Part 2 of 3)

By -- September 21, 2016

[Part I yesterday and Part III tomorrow complete this series.]

Foreign aid comes with countless strings attached. It also “transfers money from poor people in rich countries to rich people in poor countries,” economist Peter Bauer frequently quipped. It is “life support for corrupt dictators,” says James Shikwati, director of Kenya’s Inter-Region Economic Network.

Seemingly perpetual aid keeps people from starving, but often stifles the development of legal, economic, and technological systems that launch nations on the road to self-sufficiency, growth, and prosperity. It has made people worse off, and increased poverty and misery, instead of reducing it. Foreign aid, says Moyo, is “the single worst decision of modern developmental politics.” [1]

Poor countries need access to investment capital to build large-scale modern power plants of every description. They need honest governments that are committed to improving the lot of their people, growing the economic pie for everyone, courting foreign investors, and responding firmly and forthrightly to environmental activists who oppose coal, natural gas, hydroelectric and nuclear electricity initiatives.

Interim measures like solar ovens, small solar-powered charging systems, photovoltaic panels, and batteries for houses and clinics, and occasional wind turbines can provide villages with intermittent power for lights, radios, and small appliances.

However, these efforts are little more than first aid for desperate families and communities. They are essential, but not nearly enough. They are like first responders who must still get victims to a hospital for life-saving surgery and post-operative physical therapy.

“You cannot champion the poor, while supporting policies that perpetuate poverty,” says CFACT executive director Craig Rucker. “Poor families, communities and nations must have the same opportunities we had, the same freedoms to chart their destinies, the same rights to create and manage their own wealth, develop their own free and healthy institutions, solve their own environmental and health challenges – and even make their own mistakes along the way.”

We can and should advise countries, when they ask for help, Rucker adds. “But it is wrong to impose rich-country environmental standards and demands on countries that face intolerable threats to the health and welfare of their people, due to abysmal health, economic and environmental conditions that dependable, affordable electricity would help to correct.”

Success Stories Could Serve as Models

Brazil, China, India, and Indonesia finally stopped relying on World Bank and other grants and loans that always came with numerous restrictions. Instead, they began financing and building their own projects. Today, they are not about to stop constructing new coal-fired power plants; nor are responsible developed countries going to tear down coal or gas generating plants or abandon fossil fuel-powered vehicles.

China and India are building four new coal-fired power plants every month because, without coal, their industry and economy would grind to a halt, and their people would revolt. Coal accounts for some 75 percent of China’s industrial fuel use, 76 percent of its electricity generation, 80% of civil and commercial energy, and 60 percnet of chemical feedstocks, analysts Lee Geng and Michael Economides have pointed out. [2]

Both countries’ power plants are increasingly cleaner; new plants are gradually replacing older, dirtier ones; and old plants are being retrofitted with modern pollution controls. Worldwide, well over 2,000 new coal-fired generating plants are under construction or in advanced planning stages, the bulk of them in Asia, but many in Europe.

Africa and other poor regions should adopt the same approach – and assert their fundamental human rights to generate electricity by building the power plants they need. They should seek investors who want to build power plants, or will do so as part of arrangements to open mines, seaports, and other facilities.

Electricity is needed to run these facilities; investors can simply be required to construct more generating capacity than they need to operate them, as part of the contractual arrangement for licenses and permits.

“If abundant, affordable, clean energy and water were readily available to everyone, all the other problems would become much easier to solve,” Nobel Laureate Richard Smalley once observed. Of course, “clean” does not have to mean totally non-polluting, non-carbon dioxide emitting, or even built with “best available” or “maximum achievable” control technologies found on many U.S. and European power plants and factories.

Modern coal-fired power plants are far cleaner than their predecessors. [3] But even older, dirtier units are infinitely cleaner than open fires that provide pitiful amounts of polluting, deadly energy for the barest necessities. Gas-fired plants are cleaner still, as are modern nuclear and hydroelectric facilities.

First- generation power plants can fuel economic booms that finance the installation of steadily improving pollution controls over time. And the more electricity there is, the more jobs are created, and the more electricity, basic necessities, and modern conveniences people can afford.

As Andrew Revkin stated, to suggest that impoverished nations should worry more about CO2 than about tuberculosis, cholera, or malaria is absurd. To tell them their energy options must be limited to expensive, unreliable, insufficient wind and solar power is immoral. To impose anti-hydrocarbon restrictions on poor countries is to ensure that they will remain poor and diseased, with life expectancies in the low forties.

“The left wants to stop industrialization,” says American University professor Caleb Rossiter,” even if the hypothesis of catastrophic, man-made global warming is false…. Where is the justice when the U.S. discourages World Bank funding for electricity-generation projects in Africa that involve fossil fuels, and when the European Union places a ‘global warming’ tax on cargo flights importing perishable African goods? Even if the wildest claims about the current impact of fossil fuels on the environment and the models predicting the future impact all prove true and accurate, Africa should be exempted from global restraints as it seeks to modernize.” [4]

“Every year environmental groups celebrate a night when institutions in developed countries (including my own university) turn off their lights as a protest against fossil fuels,” Rossiter adds. “They say their goal is to get America and Europe to look from space like Africa: dark, because of minimal energy use.

“But that is the opposite of what’s desired by Africans I know. They want Africa at night to look like the developed world, with lights in every little village and with healthy people, living longer lives, sitting by those lights. Real years added to real lives should trump the minimal impact that African carbon emissions could have on a theoretical catastrophe.”

Rossiter is absolutely correct. Western nations and international agencies must stop erecting barriers to large-scale electricity projects and propagating scary scenarios about “catastrophic manmade climate change” and other environmental disasters that in reality are often mere speculation – and far less dangerous and harmful than the “solutions” proposed to address them.

The road forward is long, rocky, and strewn with needless obstacles. But it must be taken.

Recent progress in Africa

Ghana recently built a 130-MW gas-fired power plant, to bring electricity’s blessings to more people, schools, hospitals, and businesses. But when it asked the U.S.-funded Overseas Private Investment Corporation to support the $185-million project, the corporation refused to finance even part of it.

OPIC and other federal agencies are subject to President Obama’s executive order requiring them to reduce greenhouse gas emissions associated with projects they finance by 30 percent over the next ten years. OPIC’s decision threatened to add as much as 20 percent to the project’s financing cost.

South Africa is the most advanced nation in sub-Saharan Africa. But even here, 15 percent of the people still do not have access to electricity, and some 25 percent do not have access to the grid, maternal mortality rates are 35 times higher than in the US, and tuberculosis rates are some 200 times higher. Insufficient electricity reserve capacity has resulted in power shortfalls and brownouts that have hampered factory output, forced gold and diamond mines to shut down, and impaired the nation’s production and economy. [5]

To end this critical demand-supply imbalance, the Pretoria government applied for a World Bank loan for its 4,800-megawatt coal-fired Medupi power plant. It will be the world’s largest coal-fired power station and will be air-cooled, rather than water-cooled, and equipped with state-of-the-art pollution control and “supercritical clean coal” technologies.

Despite this technology, the Center for American Progress, Africa Action, Friends of the Earth, Sierra Club, and other extremist organizations led a global pressure campaign to convince the bank to deny the loan. The United States, Netherlands, Great Britain, Italy, and Norway abstained from voting, to protest approval, and the Obama administration sharply criticized the Medupi project’s carbon dioxide emissions, without mentioning the human health and economic benefits the power plant will bring. [6]

Thankfully, the bank narrowly approved the loan, and the project has proceeded, albeit behind schedule and well over its initial budget. By late 2015, its Number 6 turbine was generating some 790 megawatts of electricity and the Number 5 turbine should be operational soon.

“Radical groups,” says Congress of Racial Equality national chairman Roy Innis, “claim to champion justice and better health for Africa. But they oppose the very technologies that would make that possible.” They worry about speculative and often far-fetched risks of using modern coal- and gas-fired power plants. But they ignore the very real, immediate, life-threatening risks that these technologies would reduce or prevent – and the wonderful economic prosperity and other benefits they would bring.

Indeed, environmental activists continue to say the primary threat to Africa’s well-being is global warming, which they claim will spread disease, shrink water resources, and deplete crops, leading to more famine and conflict. Africa, President Obama says, can increase its access to electrical power, “while skipping – leapfrogging – the dirtier phase of development,” by using its “bountiful” wind, solar, geothermal and biofuel energy.

Wind and solar power is too expensive and unreliable to meet the needs of emerging or developed economies. Biofuels require millions of acres of wildlife habitat and scarce farmland in a drought-stricken and famine-ravaged region – plus enormous amounts of water, fertilizer and insecticides – to produce energy that could be far more easily and abundantly obtained from coal mines and oil and gas wells on much smaller land areas, with far less water.

Moreover, the proposed Ghanaian and South African power plants already “leapfrog dirtier development phases” that the United States and Europe went through, by utilizing the latest in power generation and pollution control technology.

“Renewable energy would do little to address the desperate crises that threaten Africans’ health, welfare and lives,” Innis notes. Repeated across Africa, climate change and renewable energy restrictions “will threaten numerous projects, and prolong poverty and disease for millions.” They will undermine the ability of Sub-Saharan African nations to achieve energy, economic, and human rights progress.


[1] Dambisa Moyo, Dead Aid, page xix.

[2] Geng Lee and Michael Economides, “Coal: China’s energy pillar,” Energy Tribune, January 28, 2009; “India’s high emission level OK: World Bank,” Times of India, May 9, 2009.

[3] Coal-based electricity generation in the United States has tripled since 1970, but emissions of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, particulates and other “primary” emissions fell by nearly 80% over the same period, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency. The steady progress is due to vastly improved emission control technologies and the growing use of low-sulfur coal.

[4] Caleb Rossiter, “Sacrificing Africa for climate change: Western policies seem more interested in carbon dioxide levels than in life expectancy,” Wall Street Journal, May 4, 2014. This article resulted in Rossiter being terminated as an associate fellow at the “progressive” Washington, DC think tank, the Institute for Policy Studies.

[5] Leandi Kolver, “11% of SA households still without electricity,” and another 4% have access illegally, Creamer Media’s Engineering News, November 14, 2013; http://www.engineeringnews.co.za/article/11-of-sa-households-still-without-electricity-2013-11-14/rep_id:4136. WomenAndChildrenFirst.org.uk, Maternal Mortality Rates, Country Comparison Chart, 2016; http://www.indexmundi.com/g/r.aspx?v=2223. TBfacts.org, “Countries with TB – high and low burden countries,” http://tbfacts.org/countries-tb/

[6] Suzanne Goldenberg, “World Bank’s $3.75bn coal plant loan defies environment criticism,” The Guardian (London), April 9, 2010.


  1. Powering Countries, Empowering People: A Case Study (Part 3 of 3) - Master Resource  

    […] [This completes the series of Part I and Part II.] […]


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