On Green Energy, Ethiopia Leaves US in the Dust

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President Obama’s state visit to Kenya and Ethiopia has involved a good deal of scolding of those countries by Western pundits. On some matters, the chiding should go in the other direction. On the issues of green energy and climate change, Ethiopia has announced initiatives that put the United States to shame.

The U.S. commits an annual crime against the earth by emitting 5.4 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide, whereas these African countries live cleanly in this regard. They are intent on growing economically in an environmentally friendly way. On the most important environmental and economic issue of our day, the U.S. is an unrepentant and even bullying fossil-fuel dinosaur, whereas young Africa is awakening to the benefits of renewable energy.

The spotlight of the American corporate press during President Obama’s visit to Ethiopia has been on the gamut of issues, ranging from terrorism to the civil war in South Sudan to the Addis Ababa government’s wretched persecution of bloggers. While these are legitimate concerns, a more balanced approach would admit that Ethiopia is getting something right that the U.S. is getting very badly wrong. The average American is responsible for emitting on the order of 16 metric tons of CO2 annually, whereas each of the 94 million Ethiopians produces only about a tenth of a ton. The government intends to slash even those emissions by two-thirds over the next 15 years, the most ambitious goal set by any country in the world.

Ethiopia just opened its first major wind farm, the 153-megawatt facility at Adama. The Chinese-built turbines are the biggest such complex in sub-Saharan Africa. It plans a 300-megawatt plant near Djibouti. Such wind farms can be built in only two years, making them attractive to a country with no fossil fuels to speak of and a growing population, 75 percent of which lacks electricity.

The landlocked country has also received $600 million in investment for a 300-megawatt solar power plant. Because getting the panels into the country through the port of Djibouti poses difficulties, there are also plans to build factories to construct solar panels.

The country also plans a new hydroelectric dam near the Sudanese border, due to open in 2017, the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam hydropower project. It will generate a massive 6,000 megawatts of electricity. Some 98 percent of Ethiopia’s electricity comes from hydro. Erratic rains, however, can result in low water levels and difficulties for the power grid, but the wind still blows when the rains do not come. Wind and solar, then, complement the country’s hydro policy. Egypt, a downstream country, fears the damming of the Nile, saying it could reduce the flow of water to its population. Egypt already suffers from water shortages. Addis Ababa insists that hydroelectric dams do not divert water, and that after turning turbines the river will flow on to the Mediterranean as always.

Addis Ababa has also received from the World Bank over $200 million in credits to develop its geothermal power generation potential.  This investment, however, is dwarfed by $4 billion in private investment by Reykjavik Geothermal, an Iceland-U.S. firm, in constructing a 1,000-megawatt geothermal facility in the Great Rift Valley. Ethiopia has at least 15,000 megawatts of accessible geothermal power. Geothermal depends on heat generated by magma beneath Earth’s crust, and is steady, so this source, too, will make the country less vulnerable to the vagaries of hydroelectricity.

Neighboring Kenya has already developed geothermal in a big way. It has about 600 megawatts of installed capacity and plans to have over 5,000 megawatts in 15 years, allowing its electricity costs to fall and enabling less dependence on hydro.

Electricity generation is key to continuing to grow the economy, because factories cannot run without power. Ethiopia’s gross domestic product is a paltry $50 billion or so a year, but it has been growing rapidly and this year could grow by double digits. Moreover, it will be necessary to power the green light-rail transportation network the country plans. In addition, however, Ethiopia has so much power production potential that it already sells electricity to neighbors and intends greatly to increase such sales. The income, estimated at $2 billion annually, will reduce its annual balance of trade deficit, running at roughly $8 billion a year.

Ethiopia faces the challenges of development. It has a poor human rights record, as American pundits have rightly pointed out, and its population is mired in poverty. But as a society, it is doing almost no damage to the Earth by its carbon emissions, and its government is determined to dramatically cut even those tiny emissions. The rapid advance of green energy there is in part a product of government policy. By contrast, Obama’s United States is actively interfering with efforts to reduce carbon emissions and is even seeking hard-to-find subterranean carbon via hydraulic fracturing, releasing it into the atmosphere in ways that will cause further desertification in the Sahel, of which Ethiopia forms a part. It seems pretty clear who needs the scolding.

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