Renewable energy is in Africa's future. But coal and natural gas is the future for the power-starved continent.

That message from energy ministers as part of the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit yesterday came as officials also emphasized how deeply threatened the region is by climate change. But on a continent where 600 million people still lack access to basic energy services, one leader after another said tapping into new power—clean or dirty—is their top priority.

"Africa is hugely in darkness," said Chinedu Ositadinma Nebo, Nigeria's minister of power. "Whatever we can do to get Africa from a place of darkness to a place of light ... I think we should encourage that to happen."

The three-day summit, sponsored by the Obama administration, is aimed at fostering economic ties and investment between the United States and Africa, and energy access is at the forefront of that mission.

With countries like Tanzania, Uganda and Mozambique home to major new oil and gas finds, the prospect of massive new investments in Africa's power sector has sparked debate between those who say the continent has a right to use whatever resources it has and those who are pushing it to avoid high emissions growth for the sake of the planet.

An event sponsored by General Electric Co. on the sidelines of the summit outlined the opportunities and the challenges of Africa's energy future: Demand for African oil and gas, currently concentrated in five countries, is declining rapidly due to America's natural gas boom.

At the same time, African gas production is expected to double in the next two decades, and the continent, according to the International Energy Agency, needs $400 billion in that time to provide power to the full half of the population that is without it.

"We need 20 times more power than we have today, and by the time we get there, we're going to need 30 times the amount of power we need today," said Ashish Thakkar, CEO of the Mara Group, an African conglomerate.

Clean energy is certainly part of that equation.

Battling 'energy apartheid'
Ghana's president, John Dramani Mahama, noted that through a new multimillion-dollar compact with the Millennium Challenge Corp. to modernize the sector, his country is on its way to becoming an energy hub for the African continent.

Ghana is poised to double its 2,800 megawatts of capacity in the next five years, and 10 percent of that will be composed of solar energy. Mahama said he won't rule out coal but argued that Africa must work to leapfrog the dirty power that brought modernization to the West.

"Climate change is real, and Africa stands to suffer the most," he said. "We can't take the same paradigm that America did or Europe did or even China did. We need to look at the conditions of the day and develop according to those conditions."

Meanwhile, the artist known as Akon, the Senegalese Grammy-winning singer and producer, has a new initiative. It is "Akon Lighting Africa," and he hopes to bring electricity to 1 million households by the end of 2014. He called on investors to take advantage of the continent's most freely available resource: the sun.

"Africa will never run out of sun. Our energy is right there in front of us. Why not use it?" he said.

And yet the message from most countries as well as the World Bank was unequivocal: For Africa to succeed, fossil fuels must be in the mix.

"Energy apartheid" is the way World Bank President Jim Kim described the continent's vast absence of power. Fixing that, he said, demands pragmatism.

Coal and hydroelectric power
"If some people have taken a position where we say no coal, no nuclear, no hydro, then we're really not serious," he said. Big hydropower, in particular, demands new acceptance, he said, arguing that the multilateral donor agency has learned lessons from past disastrous projects and is much better-equipped to work with indigenous communities and others affected by new dams.

"Anything that will give you 40 gigawatts of installed capacity and take billions of tons of carbon out of the air, you have to figure out how to make that work," Kim said.

Under Kim's leadership, the World Bank has made fighting climate change a top priority, and Kim himself has traveled the globe, urging heads of state to take seriously the threat rising greenhouse gas emissions pose to the gains poor countries have made. And while the bank has imposed new restrictions on coal loans, it also has staved off demands from environmental groups to phase out fossil fuels altogether.

Yesterday, Kim said the agency must balance climate concerns with a moral mandate to help provide for basic power needs.

"We're very serious about climate change. We're also very serious about African people's right for energy. For us, it means we have to work extremely hard in moving forward on hydroelectric power. But in certain places where the only option is coal, we have said that we're going to have to look at that, and look at that seriously. But we hope that we're not going to have to look at it," he said.

Kim argued that wind, solar and other renewable sources are not yet able to provide the baseload Africa needs to enable industrial capacity.

"The minute it gets there, we will be the first to celebrate. But it's not there yet," he said. African leaders were even more direct in their assertion that using coal is a right and a necessity.

'We will just go ahead'
"I think Africa should be allowed to develop its coal potential. This is very critical. There are so many areas in Africa that will help to generate power for the over 60 percent of Africans that have no access to energy at all," said Nigeria's Nebo.

His own country is working on a "very robust" renewable energy plan that calls for an increase in solar, wind and hydro production. But Nebo also called for nuclear and "clean coal" technologies to help nations minimize pollution.

"So please, I think it is important that we let Africa be and let Africa use our resources," he said.

Tanzanian Minister of Power Sospeter Muhongo agreed. His country, he said, is on the cusp of becoming a middle-income nation and aims to grow its gross domestic product about 9 percent annually. To do that, coal reserves and Tanzania's 50.5 trillion geologic feet of natural gas are critical.

"We in Africa, we should not be in the discussion of whether we should use coal or not. In my country of Tanzania, we are going to use our natural resources because we have reserves which go beyond 5 billion tons," Muhongo said.

He pointed out that the industrialization of the West was fueled with coal and argued that Europe is "going back to coal." Meanwhile, he said, the greenhouse gas emissions of African nations are "completely negligible" compared to other countries.

"We will start intensifying the utilization of coal," he said, adding, to the applause of executives, "Why shouldn't we use coal when there are other countries where their CO2 per capita is so high? ... We will just go ahead."

In another part of town, at an administration-sponsored working group on climate change and food security, Secretary of State John Kerry warned that carbon pollution and rising global temperatures pose a dire threat to agriculture in Africa and put his weight behind international negotiations toward a new global climate agreement, expected to be signed in Paris in 2015, that will call on all nations to rein in emissions.

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC., 202-628-6500