The US House of Representatives on Thursday approved a plan to bring power to 50 million Africans to boost the continent’s development and growth, clearing a key political hurdle.

The Electrify Africa Act – which accompanies a major initiative for Africa unveiled last year by President Barack Obama – aims to install 20 000 megawatts of electricity by 2020 in the continent where power shortages have impeded education, health and economic growth.

The House approved the act by 297-117, with 17 lawmakers not voting. Half of the Republican Party, which is the majority, voted against the act with conservatives saying that Africa should not be a priority amid economic concerns at home.

Supporters including the House Republican leadership countered that the plan would not cost US taxpayers and would benefit US exporters. Funding for energy projects would come from the private sector, with US-backed finance institutions including the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC) offering credit guarantees.

“With today’s passage of the Electrify Africa Act, millions in Africa are closer to having access to electricity in their homes, businesses and hospitals,” said Representative Ed Royce, a Republican who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

“With this bill we help African people and businesses reach their full potential at no additional cost to the US.”

The bill still needs approval from the Senate, which is under the control of Obama’s Democratic Party. Only one Democrat in the House voted against.

The Electrify Africa Act had been held up for months as industry groups sought to loosen US restrictions that force OPIC to avoid investment in projects with intense greenhouse gas emissions, which contribute to climate change.

General Electric, a top US company, said that it supported renewable energy but that it was unrealistic to shun gas and other fossil fuels in Africa.

The move brought vehement objections from environmentalists, who said that the act offered a chance for a new direction and that Africa was especially vulnerable to climate change. In a compromise, the final bill does not address the issue.

Justin Guay of the Sierra Club environmental group voiced concern that industry groups would try again in the Senate version but said he was hopeful over the final outcome.

With some 550 million Africans lacking reliable power, Obama has identified electricity as the latest big US initiative for the continent after former president George W. Bush’s efforts to tackle diseases including HIV/AIDS.