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The European Union anticipates alleviating future energy shortages and fulfilling renewable energy mandates by importing “green” electricity from Africa. Historical precedent and environmental consequences have largely been ignored. This article presents an environmental history of African electricity generation at a continental scale, tracing its parallel developments with colonialism, as well as its pursuit in the independence eras of development assistance and neoliberalism. Initially electricity served European interests. Independent governments' development policies involved electrification primarily for industrial development; in North Africa, universal access was also a priority. Recurrent themes and cycles of environmental constraint, environmental disruption, and displacement of consequences from one ecosystem to another are addressed. Highlighted are inter‐relationships among electricity generation, fuel supplies, ecosystems, and water cycles. Late twentieth century technologies and globalized markets re‐valued African rivers and deserts as potential energy sources. Mega‐engineering projects were rejuvenated or proposed. Rural electrification was labelled uneconomic social welfare unrelated to economic development policies of selling power through national, regional, continental and intercontinental interconnections. Historical analysis suggests new areas of research for sustainable development and alternatives to declensionist narratives. Decentralized, small‐scale plants offer models of electricity supply for industrial and domestic needs, while investment in rural electrification produced measureable economic benefit at national levels. Will the EU renewable energy mandate simply displace Europe's environmental problems to Africa? Can Africa afford another water‐intensive export commodity? Will the New African Century follow well‐established patterns of exploitation, or take new, sustainable directions?

Document Type: Research Article


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Publication date: 2011-09-01

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