Saturday, November 12, 2005

Renewable energy for Africa?

As posted here before, electricity availability is spotty in most of Africa, due to underinvestment in infrastructure and ineffective government ministries. Developing pipelines, big power plants, and an electric grid on the US/European model is very expensive and out of reach of villages or small companies, providing a strong incentive for local energy solutions, which are likely not to be based on fossil or nuclear fuel (except for those people who live on top of oil wells or uranium ore [the latter would be unhealthy]). My friend Adrian, who does solar energy research at USC, has going a volunteer project to provide solar panels for villages in Mali. A conference of west African governments recently published a plan for accelerating electrification using government funds, and hopefully using some renewable sources. One would imagine that a private-sector initiative could likely provide electricity faster and to more people than either a government or a volunteer effort. What do you think?


Busayo Michael Oluwagbemi said...

Me think this is very true but imagining that solar cell manufacturing is still way expensive it will take time to get there. But for most countries, it will require a combination of conventional fossil or hydro based methods and stuff like Solar and Wind to get out of the hole of undersupply. For a country like Nigeria (this is UPNAIRA right?) the problem is not just generation, there is a fundamental problem with transmission and distribution as well as administrative malaise ie. corruption..thanks to NEPA (Never Expect Power Always) now PHCN (Please Hold Candles Now)

Busayo Michael Oluwagbemi said...

Madam T, you be electrical engineer I am looking forward to what u think....we need ur brain power on this topic

geon said...

A cost-benefit analysis of different options to provide power in a country like Nigeria would be interesting. While solar cells are expensive, building a power plant and delivery infrastructure for fossil fuels where it doesn't exist, or trucking them through bad roads to small generators, is also expensive. As well, decentralized power generation is less vulnerable to the "administrative malaise and corruption" you point out and so has an advantage in reliability.

Maxwell said...

Wow, I can't believe that "renewable energy" and Africa are in the same phrase.
As a person who's very passionate about the well-being of the homeland of my ancestors (I'm from Barbados via Canada), I think energy self-sufficiecy is paramount to truly developing Africa's full potential. Now that I'm here (Kenya) on business, I'm able to see firsthand how corruption's really killing hope on many levels. This makes it all the more important.

One other important note that needs to be highlighted. When alternate forms of renewable energy are utilised, it is a big boost for a country's economic INDEPENDENCE. Why? Because funds used to acquire oil from some of these "questionable" nations could instead be used in education, health care, and important economic development.
Quite frankly, the only countries in the world with a vested interest in free or renewable energy are countries in Europe, Japan, China, and India. You will not find much innovation or political willpower coming out of the US due to obvious reasons (powerful Big Oil lobby groups, etc.).

Damn, I had a link about an Indian dude (I think!) who's doing some amazing work in the renewable energy sector with 1 or 2 viable products that'll have far-reaching implications...must find link.

t said...

Back to energy...

Though I'm an electrical engineer, I don't have the answers here. I'll just make A LOT of comments.

The jokes on NEPA suggest part of the problem we (many people) have in Lagos and possibly other parts of Nigeria: we haven't a commitment to making sure things work efficiently, in part because we beleive "it's the way we are" and are holding on to our "identity." I mean: if we were "oyinbo" people, we would stop at traffic lights, jog for better health, and dare to expect power always.
I write this without making a judgement on whether we should become productive with unsustainably high consumption like Western people, or remain wasteful and under-served Eko people (Lagosians; Eko=Lagos), or some mutation of African people that does expect power always.
I have a friend in power who works very hard and has very high standards even when his work is in far-flung parts of Nigeria. With more people like him...

What a manager/politician (who could also be a brilliant Electrical Engineer, or should be even, because the classical training is useful here) in power in Nigeria would do is what Nir said: a CBA of different options for generation, for transmission...I want to assume that we have people who can handle this:
money cost of installation/operation; time to fault/break, and cost of maintenance; demand/population data; power output/quality deivered; back-up plans; that's essentially your top-level program.
for finer detail, you can study maintenance: where will staff and/or parts come from, are they in fact available or just in our imagination? ;
study installation: which option will happen in our lifetime and which one will have to be funded through a leaky, high-corruption channel, such that the project will never take off?
and so on.

Good engineers do this sort of thing very well.

This is a good place to pitch GE's Ecomagination philosophy. I will be broken-hearted if it turns out that this is all talk. There are other companies, BP (petroleum), ? (conventional power), ? (solar power, probably smaller companies at the moment) etc that talk a lot these days about sutainability. When they (in the US, in India, in Sweden, in Nigeria) do things intelligently, we all win.
Go to work for GE!!! Develop cool stuff!!!
I'll try one of these days to find out more about what start-ups (funded or not) in India and other parts of the world focus on clean energy, then I'll add links to this post. Do too (yo, Max :)
In the near future, all the newly wealthy Nigerian people will not have Toyotas, because we'll suffocate from the emissions. If you think traffic is bad now, or that molue (big, 30-year old public tranportion buses) give off a lot of smoke, wait till ten million more cars go on the road, because more people tapped into the "global economy" and can now afford cars.
In the near future, maybe we'll want to light up our sky-scraper buildings in all fifty major Nigerian cities, and in all five hundred major Chinese cities and all over the coast of Brazil, to show that we also have "arrived"...then we'll have to ask questions about whether we are in fact getting a lot of what we don't want along with what we want; and how to reduce the negative impact of technology.
Must we develop technology, and technology adoption policy, with "LOW NEGATIVE IMPACT" in mind? how? or can we use now, improve later as the West has done in recent history?

t said...

You don't want to work for GE, consider working for BP instead.
Related Links:
1. A Caltech-BP partnership in solar cell research
2. BP's chief scientist's assessment of energy needs.

t said...

About the book: How to Live Well Without Owning a Car: Save Money, Breathe Easier, and Get More Mileage Out of Life

I want to kick the car habit. It shouldn't be very difficult for me because it makes so much sense.

t said...

Risk Management in Nuclear Plants - Bulgaria Story from the BBC

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