Race to Electrify Rural Africa Could Help The West Too
Posted by addisethiopia on September 20, 2014
Investments in mini grid systems aimed at powering up remote parts of Africa may provide a test bed for rural energy infrastructure elsewhere in the world
TURNING on the lights in Africa may help to power up the rest of the world sustainably. New investments in mini grid systems aimed at bringing power to rural Africa and other remote areas may provide a test bed for the rural energy infrastructure of the future.
Rich nations are taking an increasing interest in electrifying the rest of the world. At the Africa Leaders Summit in Washington DC this month, US president Barack Obama announced an additional $12 billion in funding for his administration’s Power Africa initiative, which aims to help bring power to at least 60 million households and businesses across the continent.
But 85 per cent of the 1.3 billion people lacking electricity worldwide live in rural areas. That means powering Africa won’t be as simple as hooking up villages to a centralised power grid. Localised “micro-grids” are beginning to take off. They can generate anything from a few watts to a few megawatts and provide power for tens to thousands of households at a time.
An increasing amount of this power is coming from renewable sources, such as wind, solar and hydro. “It creates an opportunity,” says Subhes Bhattacharyya at De Montfort University in Leicester, UK. “You don’t have to follow the old-fashioned way of doing things. You can jump the queue to new technologies.”
For instance, international group Practical Action is building micro-hydro-power plants in Zimbabwe and Kenya, which harness falling water such as that in mountain rivers.
Another group, a Kenyan start-up called Access:energy, developed a model to teach Kenyans to make parts of wind turbines out of scrap metal and car parts, reducing the need for outside help should a part of the system break. A single turbine can generate about 2.5 kilowatt-hours per day, enough to power a micro-grid for 50 homes.
These sorts of local efforts are important – and not just for getting electricity to rural Africa. The continental US and other rich parts of the world have set goals for switching to renewable power and reinventing electricity grids as well. Lessons learned in Africa could help get parts of the US running on renewables and micro-grids.
“There are vulnerabilities because of the way our US grid is based on big, centralised power stations that are all very interdependent,” says Gwen Holdmann at the Alaska Center for Energy and Power in Fairbanks. “If one component goes down, it can cause a cascading effect.” Switching to local grids can ultimately help make the whole power infrastructure more robust in emergencies such as hurricanes or solar storms.
Not everyone agrees that renewable energy is the best option for Africa, however. Micro-grids may not be the cheapest option in the long run, as electricity from small grids tends to be three or four times as expensive per unit than that from centralised sources.
It hardly seems fair that the people who can least afford energy must use a more expensive system, says Bhattacharyya. “On the other hand, if they don’t get electricity and remain in darkness, then it’s unfair for them as well. That’s the choice one has to make, and there’s no single solution for all.”
This article appeared in print under the headline “Africa’s power surge”