World Economic Forum: towards an electranet?

One of the morning’s sessions at the World Economic Forum’s meeting in Cape Town promised to address a topic I’ve been thinking about the past few days – power generation for Africa. As African economies grow, they are bumping up against power constraints, discovering that the inability to provide adequate power to their citizenry slows business growth and leads to a pissed-off citizenry. (Sorry to get into technical economic terms…) This session introduces the concept of an “electranet”, a flexible, adhoc structure like the Internet that could allow power producers to spill their excess power onto a network and sell their power. It’s possible that an “electranet” would grow on a grassroots basis, connecting otherwise disconnected villages that had started to generate their own power, eventually growing to connect to the grid built by the government and by large power providers.

It’s a vision I find compelling – it would be remarkable to see communities, supported by local and diaspora funding, decide to start producing and selling their own power, and to create a grid that subsumes the existing grid, much as mobile phones have displaced and obviated land lines. But there’s a lot of skepticism in the room from two different sides.

One of the panelists is a energy expert from rural India. His recent work has focused on biogas, harvesting manure from cows, fermenting it and using the resulting gas to cook, provide gas mantle lights and to produce small amounts of electrical power. The region he works in has good hydropower potential, which enables micro and “picohydro”. He points to the possibility of generating electricity via wood, or through oil extracted from forest seeds. To use this power efficiently, they distribute LED lights, which can operate for 60 hours after a brief charging period.

He’s skeptical that these power generation systems scale beyond household or village networks, and very skeptical that governments will allow the creation of village grids. He points to the fact that electricity in India – which usually costs 2-3 rupees per kilowatt hour – would cost 15 rupees for kilowatt hour if it were not subsidies. The subsidy comes through building wires to these villages as a public good. When villages try to build their own electrical connectivity, they’re charged for the wires, the transformers and the full freight of the cost. Village-based power generation isn’t “sexy” enough for the government to pay attention to: “Prime Ministers don’t inaugurate biogas plants.”

The head of a UK company that focuses on human and animal power (you know the one – under Chatham House rules, I’m not supposed to tell you who…) talks about the potential of power generation via bullocks. A generator can produce 350 watts for three hours at a time before you need to switch bulls – that’s enough power to provide radio and lighting for a small village. He believes that “bespoke” power solutions can help close the power gap which, he notes, is massive – Africa is 20% electrified, and that figure includes South Africa and the wealthier countries of North Africa – the electrification figures in poor countries is probably under 5%. Unfortunately, solar and wind aren’t yet options for these bespoke solutions, as they require “double digit years” to pay back this investment. Being able to provide this power in rural areas is critical in part because of mobile phones – he points to the absurdity of people sending phones by mail to major cities so they can be charged up and sent back.

An audience member – a builder of large power systems – objects to the direction of the discussion. He points out that there’s a massive, continent-wide deficit in electricity, exacerbated by the hypergrowth of countries like Ghana, which are rapidly using up their generation capacity. “Doing this bottom up will be too little, too late.” Human and animal power won’t allow people “to run a blacksmiths or a machining shop” – instead, the investment must be from the top down in major hydro, gas, coal and oil plants.

A representative from a UK power producer focused on biomass believes that village-level power is a possibility. The technology his company works with can generated from a few hundred watts to 65 Megawatts – his most intriguing product is a generator the size of a car engine which can power a cellular mast through biofuels and provide excess power to the surrounding village. The problem, he sees, is getting support from governments, the licenses to grow biomass and to generate using these renewable materials.

Again, I don’t know what’s state of the art in this field, but there appears to be a huge gap for power generation on the village and regional level that isn’t yet being well addressed, at least in an African context.

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