Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Energy - Continued

Tanesco, the electricity utility, has local “Luku” locations, offices where one pays for electricity. You hand over cash and, in return, receive a code number that you punch into your meter to load a set amount of Kilowatt-hours.

Yesterday afternoon, I went to the closest Luku office. I couldn't help but notice that there was a portable generator running, powering the office so that it could sell electricity.

This morning, I drove up to the BP station to fill a Gerry can with diesel for our back-up generator. The station had no power, so couldn’t operate any of its pumps. Since they had no power, I couldn’t get ready for the inevitability of our having no power.

There are a few things at play. Tanesco is 100% owned by the state and is responsible for 98% of the country’s electricity supply. Make something a state-owned monopoly and you’re asking for inefficiency. Two-thirds of Tanzania’s power comes from hydroelectric. A few years ago when there were draughts across East Africa, low water levels in the hydro dams forced Tanesco to ration and schedule blackouts across the country (as opposed to the current unpredictable, random black-outs). Climate change predictions do not bode well for hydro-based equatorial countries either.

In the U.S. the constant supply of power allows the average consumer to generally think of it in small, incremental terms – turning off a light switch, changing to more energy efficient bulbs, getting an energy star appliance. When power is as random as it is here, you learn to both adapt (hence the back-up generator business), and try to think differently. I’ve been starting to look at solar energy as a potential avenue to invest my own energy. Partly because of the constant burning equatorial sun, partly from limited experience of being here not quite two months and seeing firsthand the inconsistent supply of electricity, and partly from a little research-- 80% of the population lives in rural areas without access to the electrical grid.

Solar, based on the websites touting it, seems promising. There is rampant supply: the earth receives more energy from the sun in just one hour than the world uses in a whole year. There are two primary means of generating solar energy: photovoltaic – using silicon to directly translate solar energy into electricity, or solar thermal, using panels to heat up either water or a liquid that can then turn a generator to make electricity, or just uses the hot water.

There is a great deal of research and investment in solar technology to find a means to produce power as cost effectively as coal or nuclear. The trick is finding the right technology that is appropriate from a cost standpoint, from an ease of implementation standpoint, and ongoing maintenance and support for a developing region.

Given the lack of grid access across Africa, there are a number of efforts that are being piloted. Solar cookers (which are basically reflectors and a black pot) are simple devices that reduce the need for fires and reduce deforestation. Solar lanterns can replace kerosene, which is costly and toxic. In terms of power generation, small PV panels can power a refrigerator, a TV, and recharge a cell phone.

I haven’t seen the perfect solution for solar generation that provides enough power for schools, hospitals, and businesses in an affordable manner. Most deeply funded research appears to be going into utility-sized solutions to serve the U.S. and European markets, that is, markets where there would be a sizable financial return for success, not ‘micro” approaches that would be more suitable for rural developing countries.

I am talking with an organization called Solar Aid ( a relatively new UK-based NGO that is planning on launching an initiative in East Africa. I look forward to learning about their approach and seeing if there may be a role for me.

In the meantime, I have to go to the Luku to buy some more dependable Tanzanian electricity.

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