19 May 2012

Uganda: Solar Can Sort Energy Crisis


IN preparation of a series of international conference papers on energy, a stark reality has presented itself.

It is not the obvious crisis of underpowered rural Africa. We have always known that the annual per-capita electrical usage of the 700 million Tropical Africans is 124 kWh - and is falling due to our high birth rate - compared to 1,600 of a North African and 6,000 of a South African.

We are so used to black outs in our industries that when we hear of a standard of one blackout a decade in US industries, we think that is magical since ours averages over 560 days in the same period.

Amidst all this, foreigners take us as hardy folks whose needs for electricity are limited and would probably endanger our safety or compromise the environment.

And when we insist on building generation, transmission and distribution capacity, they inflate costs to us and often attach 'terms and conditions'. In our pan Africanist Solar Energy Research Group (SERG), based in Cape Town, South Africa, a group of engineers is seeking to challenge this status quo.

One way of overcoming these problems and prejudices is through rural photo electrification. In this submission, I show why we should go solar. In subsequent ones, I explain how and what problems await us if we opted for that route (and how to overcome them).

Hopefully, I convince most readers to think of photo electrifying their rural homes and government officials to act more vigorously in favour of this strategy.

Photo electricity is electric power from sunlight - first put to commercial use in NASA's space missions about five and a half decades ago. At the time, it cost $300 a Watt - meaning to light a modern 15W solar bulb you would need $4,500 then or almost $23,000 of today's money!

The technology is, therefore, not new. It is well developed and has become more than 500 times cheaper.

The first reason why every middleclass tropical African should use photo electricity in their rural home is that the source is free, always available and stress free.

There are no inaccurate recurrent bills to pay; no meter readers and linemen to bribe; no politicians to beseech for a supply line; no paperwork, no bureaucracy and no queues whatsoever. It is more like getting a cell phone line minus the cell companies' user charges in the more enlightened

African countries today. For the domestic consumer, it will subsequently be shown that there is absolutely no need for national electric supply companies in the forms they exist today.

The second reason is that photo electricity is a lot safer than ordinary grid supply. It is direct current at low voltage. And now forget the business of inverters and associated paraphernalia.

For your rural home, you can meet all your refrigeration, lighting, water pumping, computing and even favourite al Jazeera or CNN on direct current supply if you get the right equipment.

Go a step further - since you are middle class - and irrigate your crops in the dry season. Forget the valley dams which can dry up due to surface evaporation. Just use photovoltaic direct current systems to power boreholes or underground tanks to serve only you and those you choose.

Perhaps as a people, the biggest beneficiaries of rural photo electrification are our governments. Let them mind only about supplying grid power to big strategic factories and transport systems. It is cheaper, easier and more effective to supply these.

The transmission and distribution network is smaller and easier to monitor and maintain. Revenue collection from these is almost guaranteed - unlike the present 47% continental loss in dilapidated spider web like networks.

Let our governments concentrate on training manpower and developing local African capacity. For us, this is our home - and it is where we can excel, make a difference and be appreciated.

Wherever else you go on the globe, our governments are constantly belittled and accused of corruption.

But actually these other people are talking about you and me. Because tomorrow when one of us joins the government, biases won't just melt away.

So, let us minimise avenues of corruption even at the low ranks as much as we can. Shifting mass consumption off the more regulated grid and opening avenues in an eternal, free energy source is one sure way to achieve this in the power sector.

Writing about Tropical Africa's electricity sector for the World Bank in 2007, Edgardo and Pradhan said: "Corruption in the electricity sector can range from petty-at level of meter readers --- to grand larceny by political executives".

Let us do away at least with the 'petty' by going solar. There will be problems of course, but they can be overcome. They are not insurmountable!

The writer is a Pan Africanists and heads SERG

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