In the developed world, reliable energy is something that can be taken for granted. People pay attention only when something goes wrong, like when the power goes out during the Super Bowl, forcing players and fans to sit uncomfortably in the dark for 34 minutes.
In my country, the West African nation of Liberia, living without power has become a way of life. For the last decade, we've been digging out from the aftermath of a 23-year civil war that left our energy infrastructure in shambles. In a country of 4.1 million, only about 1 percent of urban residents -- and almost no rural residents -- have access to electricity. Everyone else depends on unreliable and inefficient sources of energy such as firewood, charcoal, candles, kerosene, battery-powered flashlights, palm oil, and small gasoline and diesel generators. Many of these energy sources are toxic and create pollutants that have serious health consequences for our country.
This is why I was delighted when U.S. President Barack Obama put energy poverty at the center of his trip to Africa this summer. His new initiative, called Power Africa, aims to double electricity access in sub-Saharan Africa by responsibly building on the continent's potential in gas and oil as well as its huge potential to develop clean energy.
Initially focusing on six key partner countries, including my own, Power Africa will mobilize the U.S. private sector to add 10,000 megawatts (MW) of cleaner, more efficient electricity generation capacity, while also increasing electricity access by at least 20 million new households and businesses. The White House has pledged $7 billion over the next five years in support of the initiative (most of which will be returned to U.S. taxpayers because of the structure of the plan's public-private partnerships). In addition, the American private sector has committed an additional $9 billion in direct assistance.
The U.S. Congress is also taking action to address African energy poverty. Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), the committee's ranking member, have introduced the "Electrify Africa Act of 2013," a bill that would address some of the limitations of the Power Africa initiative and have the complementary goal of providing electricity access to more than 50 million people by installing 20,000 MW of energy capacity by 2020.
It is heartening to see Obama, Congress, the United Nations, and the World Bank focused on increasing energy access in sub-Saharan Africa. They are keenly aware that without a reliable power supply, patients are treated in under-equipped hospitals, vaccines requiring refrigeration can become unusable, students cannot study after dark, and routine business transactions are exceedingly difficult.