electricity


Africa at night by satellite

The Economist has an article this week in which it points out that power shortages are one of the biggest brakes on development.

SEEN from space, Africa at night is unlit—as dark as all-but empty Siberia. With nearly 1 billion people, Africa accounts for over a sixth of the world’s population, but generates only 4% of global electricity . . . most of the attempts at electrification in the 1970s and the 1980s failed. In some countries, dictators pillaged power stations for parts and fuel. In others, power stations were built but not maintained. Turbines were run at full capacity until they broke, then were abandoned. By some counts, only 17 of Nigeria’s 79 power stations, many dating from this period, are still working; . . . The World Bank reckons that 500m sub-Saharan Africans are without what it calls “modern energy”.

I know the constant lights out in Ghana this summer have been devastating for small business, and for employees in any business that uses electric power, which is most all of them. Rawlings got rural electrification under way. But if there is no power, power lines don’t help a lot. The Economist reports there are a number of plans and projects underway throughout the continent:

Many African governments are looking at alternative sources of energy to make up their projected shortfalls. Hydropower is clean, from the point of view of greenhouse-gas emissions, but most of the easy alternatives, notably coal, are dirty. Donors committed to cutting global carbon emissions are unlikely to favour more dirty coal-fired power stations of the sort that predominate in South Africa, although the government there claims that it wants to clean them up. Some fossil fuels, however, are less damaging than coal. A pipeline planned for west Africa, which will carry gas that is now flared off in oilfields, could stabilise electricity supply in coastal cities.

Few Africans in rural areas have access to electricity. Connecting them to national grids will be slow and expensive. Yet Lilliputian windmills, water mills, solar panels and biomass furnaces could have a big collective impact. The cost of lighting a shack takes 10% of income in the poorest households and the kerosene lamps are highly polluting. In response, the World Bank has rolled out “Lighting Africa”, an ambitious effort to get 250m of the poorest Africans on clean-energy lighting by 2030.

Talk of the mass production of biofuels in Africa is premature, but advances have been made. Some investors are backing jatropha, a plant whose seeds produce an oil for burning in generators. There is also an effort to tap geothermal energy. The Great Rift Valley, from Eritrea to Mozambique, could produce 7,000MW. Kenya hopes to get 20% of its energy from geothermal sources by 2017.

Engineers think they can also use the steady winds in Africa’s mountain ranges for power production. And if the costs of using the sun’s warmth can be reduced to 30% below its present cost, vast solar farms could offer cheap, clean energy for African cities and in doing so boost incomes in rural areas. Egypt, which relies mostly on natural gas, is looking hard at solar power.

The biofuels worry me a bit. If Africa goes into biofuel production, will it be for African power? or for US and European use? Much of what I’ve been reading lately talks about Africa growing biofuel for the US market. And although this article talks about how hydropower is clean, it can still have profound environmental impact, which is not mentioned here. We can see examples of this with the Chinese dams on the Mekong, and the consequent effect on water supply in Southeast Asia.

Small scale local projects can make a huge difference.

I was relieved the article did not mention nuclear power. Some are talking about that, and it would be an unmitigated disaster. No one has figured out what to do with nuclear waste. It is a huge, though mostly silent problem in the US. Europe has been dumping nuclear waste off the coast of Somalia, some of which washed up with the tsunami. And the regulation and management, which is unreliable here in the US, would, depending on which government in which country, be likely to be less dependable, more erratic, and a danger to everyone.

ADDED 8/23 – After studying the map above, it looks like the brightest spots are Cairo, the Niger Delta, and Pretoria. Everything I read about the Niger Delta says there is little to no electricity, and what there is, is frequently off. So what is causing the light? Other things I read say that you can see the fires from space that flare the gas off the oil, and that there are children in the delta that have never known a dark night. Is the light coming out of the Niger Delta from gas flares?

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Chernobyl, site of the worlds worst nuclear accident.
20 years later the population still suffers terrible health problems.

Energy experts” are recommending nuclear energy for Ghana. There is renewed interest around the world in nuclear energy, which is perceived as the fastest, easiest, and cheapest way to increase electrical supply in a country.

Nuclear power is a big mistake.

Until now, nobody, in any country, has figured out a safe way to dispose of the nuclear waste from nuclear plants.

This, along with the health hazards, are what stopped the construction of nuclear plants in the United States. Nuclear waste is accumulating in the existing plants and causing health problems in the surrounding neighborhoods. The Bush administration has tried to get nuclear construction started again, but there is still no solution to the waste. It was all supposed to be transported to Nevada and buried. But transporting it across country is terribly dangerous. And there is no way to guarantee that once buried, it will not get into the surrounding land and ground water. Citizens of Nevada and around the country are fighting this with the Nevada Nuclear Waste Task Force.

European countries are already using African countries, and the oceans off the coast of Africa as dumping grounds for nuclear waste.

. . . for the past 15 years or so, European companies and others have used Somalia as a dumping ground for a wide array of nuclear and hazardous wastes.

“There’s uranium radioactive waste, there’s leads, there’s heavy metals like cadmium and mercury, there’s industrial wastes, and there’s hospital wastes, chemical wastes, you name it,” he said. “It’s not rocket science to know why they’re doing it because of the instability there.”

. . .

The Asian tsunami dislodged and smashed open the drums, barrels, and other containers, spreading the contaminants as far away as 10 or more kilometers inland.

. . .

The results of the contamination on coastal populations, Mr. Nuttall says, have been disastrous.

“These problems range from acute respiratory infections to dry, heavy coughing, mouth bleedings, abdominal hemorrhages, what they described as unusual skin chemical reactions,” he noted. “So there’s a whole variety of ailments that people are reporting from these villages where we had a chance to look. We need to go much further and farther in finding out the real scale of this problem.”

And –

Poor countries are victims of that illegal trade, which constitutes a threat to their biodiversity and culture, and hurts their chances for development.


In addition, what guarantees do we have that the plants will be well managed and that inspectors can not be bribed? Accountability is a problem in the United States, which has fairly good inspection regulations and law enforcement. The people who operate the plants in the US are still not always as careful about safety as they should be. They most certainly cannot be trusted without reliable oversight.

Two thirds of the energy produced by nuclear power is waste in the form of heat. It creates thermal pollution in the water supply, such as the Hudson River in New York state. Do we want more water pollution in Ghana?

Ghana should turn thumbs down to nuclear power.

This photo shows one of the solar-powered lamp-posts that are springing up
around Burkina Faso, especially in small towns which otherwise have no
electricity. This one is at the colourful market in Markoye, about 40km
north-east of Gorom-Gorom.
Solar power of course has considerable potential in places like Burkina, where
there is more than enough sun. But the purchase and replacement costs for the
equipment are still prohibitive for people’s personal use.

We’ve been having a number of “lights out” at my home due to power shortages. Ghana has just made an agreement with Nigeria to help supply electrical power.

Nigeria has agreed to supply 80 megawatts of electricity to Ghana as part of a deal to help the country to address its current energy crisis.

Additionally, it has accepted to take over the supply of power to Benin and Togo, to take off the burden on Ghana and bring some relief to the country.
. . .
President Kufuor said Ghana again was exploring other alternative sources including solar and bio-diesel.

All Ghana’s power comes from the Volta dam. If water is low, we have both water and electricity shortages. It would provide Ghana with a great deal more security, as well as flexibility, if we establish other sources of power. I would love to see Ghana develop its use of solar power. That is the only power source we can count on for sure, and we have plenty of it. Ghana needs to develop both electrical resources, and water conservation and resources. Taxes and tax breaks could be used to encourage the use of solar power. Ghana should apply the following principles:

non-damage to economic growth, non-damage to the level of energy services provided to the energy consumers, and also reduce the damage to the environment. The order of priority should be:

1. Becoming more efficient and preventing waste;

2. Exploitation of residual energy;

3. Production and exploitation of renewable and alternative energies (exploitation of non-fossil sources). For Ghana, the obvious area to look at is solar power.

Solar power installation

Our Government may need to pass a legislation that all new houses built need to consider the inclusion of solar power provision. This could be encouraged by a small tax on new buildings, which is waived if adequate solar power facilities are installed. The tax incentive offsets the considerable cost of solar power, making it more attractive. This is a way to fund solar power at no cost to government. Would it not be wonderful if Ghana became the leading developer of solar power in Africa? It must surely have a future, and those countries who embrace it will get the opportunity to have the industry based in their country.