When I served as the chief technical specialist for renewable energy and energy efficiency at the World Bank, one project I found especially interesting 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 markets for clean energy are often most effective in poor, power-starved nations.
Roughly 1.5 billion people around the world live without electricity today, so these kinds of projects should be a priority for international development (see “Lake Kivu’s Great Gas Gamble”). But such projects have ramifications well beyond energy. They represent a major opportunity to use some of our greatest infrastructure investments to build peaceful, prosperous, and coöperative regional economies. The grid is the greatest engineering achievement of the 20th century, and yet we’ve given very little thought to building partnerships through shared energy commerce. This has to change.
Critical opportunities now exist to build coöperative regional economies and address the global climate crisis. One example can be found in South Sudan, the world’s newest nation, where old ethnic tensions, exacerbated by potential oil and gas wealth, have disrupted an already fragile process of nation building. But if investors could connect South Sudan to the emerging Eastern Africa Power Pool, the country could disengage from its tense relationship with Sudan and cheaply power the local economy—in a place where less than 2 percent of the population now has electricity.
Kosovo, one of Europe’s poorest nations, has been a battleground over a proposed coal-fired power plant. Kosovo happens to have significant resources in wind, biomass, and hydropower, much of which would most efficiently be developed jointly with Albania. This approach would make the coal plant—a pollution-belcher six kilometers from the capital city—an unnecessary anachronism. Kosovo and Albania recently announced that they will integrate their power markets, a step that could unleash the region’s impressive solar energy resources to work closely with bioenergy and distributed hydropower.
Nations linked by energy commerce—and in particular clean, local energy—are far less likely to enter into hostilities than those that see each other only as regional rivals. That’s why governments seeking to build strong international partnerships would do well to make transmission diplomacy and development a centerpiece of foreign policy. Such efforts would greatly aid energy access globally and make clean energy the technology of choice for a new wave of investments.
Daniel Kammen is a professor of energy at the University of California, Berkeley, and a contributing lead author for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.