Friday, June 7, 2013

Is There a Smart Grid in Africa’s Future? The Answer May Surprise You

On a continent with many of the world’s poorest countries, it seems perfectly normal that a smart grid would not be on the plate for those nations’ governments. But Africa, a collection of 48 mainland countries and six island nations, is a far different place from the smart grid hotbeds of the U.S., China and Europe.
A number of those countries are working to adopt several aspects of smart grid to bring their economies out of the muck of troubled histories and into an era of development and smart, sustainable energy futures, even though the odds appear terrible. Several countries on the African continent are taking a chance.
Consider the frequent and long history of violent, bloody insurgencies and civil wars as well as a history of exploitative colonialism that left countries poor, undeveloped and broken. It’s hard to imagine those countries working toward smart, sustainable electricity infrastructures when more immediate challenges like providing food and water are in the way.
And most don’t have much to work with. What electricity infrastructure they have is inadequate, unreliable and stagnant in the face of a rapidly growing demand.
But some of those countries are taking serious, concrete steps. While our familiar concept of a smart grid may be a long ways off, some African countries are working to take advantage of vast natural resources and smart grid technologies to create an energy future.
And Africa is a potential solar powerhouse for photovoltaic, concentrated and geothermal solar energy production. Also, a lot of major companies and multinational companies in the energy sector think it’s worth a shot too: companies like Siemens, Schneider Electric, GE, Alstom, Echelon, Chevron and more – not to mention some homegrown multinationals – are investing.
Priorities and projects
We can’t begin to cover all of the smart grid-related energy projects planned or underway in Africa (and you’d quit reading long before we were done if we tried), so we’ve put together snapshots of countries picked at random from the continent’s five regions.
Angola: In January, the Energy and Water Ministry announced in January a rural electrification project designed to locate 142 solar PV systems in several parts of the country. The project also includes more than a 100 isolated solar systems and street lighting. Angola’s a classic case: about 30-35% of Angolans have electricity and the infrastructure can’t come close to meeting demand. But in April, Angola president Jose Eduardo dos Santos released plans to stabilize the country’s energy supply by 2016 with massive investments of $9 billion to greatly increase production capacity and $7.5 billion for needed transmission infrastructure. Among the options are solar and wind energy and forest biomass (as well as hydropower and natural gas).
Kenya: About 20% of Kenyans have electricity (and that’s a generous number), most of it from hydropower with some geothermal and thermal in the mix. While the country has a small energy reserve margin despite quickly growing demand, all it takes is a drought to wipe it out. But they’ve got big plans for geothermal. KenGen provides most of Kenya’s power and is moving into geothermal to provide half the country’s electricity by 2018, with government support. Also, small solar systems are being adopted in Kenyan homes at an increasing rate. KenGen also is working on a transmission deal with Ethiopia and plans to substantially up wind power production.
Nigeria: Another classic Africa energy story, Nigeria had worked to improve its electricity availability, but did nothing to up its generating capacity between 1991 and 2001. Availability was about 27-60% of installed capacity at the time. That inaction, and more instances like it, have been serial thorns in the side of the country’s potential economic development. In March, the Nigerian government said GE would invest $10 billion in the country’s electricity infrastructure as part of an MOU. But GE denied the numbers, saying it would invest in individual projects and provide equipment and services. However, also in March, the country’s science and technology minister proclaimed that a solar panel plant built by the National Agency for Science and Engineering Infrastructure has the capacity to fix the country’s power problems if it is expanded.
Rwanda: As noted earlier, few Rwandans have access to electricity. But the country is trying to solve the problem. The country has installed biogas plants in all of its 14 prisons, a small part of an overall plan to use renewables instead of charcoal and firewood that now fulfill 85% of the country’s energy needs. The government also plans to move biogas into Rwandan homes. And solar has been big business in Rwanda for some time, in schools, health and administration centers and community facilities. It’s a big part of the country’s effort to develop indigenous renewables.
Tunisia: While also a very poor country, almost all Tunisians have access to electricity, according to a World Bank report. But there’s a lot of room for improvement and demand is growing. GE agreed in March to several projects in the country, from renewable energy to aeronautics and water treatment, the government said. Tunisia is another country that very much wants to develop its renewable energy portfolio. The country’s wind and solar resources are very strong, and the ambitious Tunisia Solar Plan is one way the country is trying to take advantage of it. And the country’s strategic location makes it a good partner in an envisioned ‘supergrid’ connecting other African as well as European countries to help distribute solar power.
Yes, in many ways it does sound like baby steps. But considering the unimaginable challenges Africa faces because of its collective history and poverty, at least it’s a start.