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Monday, September 15, 2014

Electrical power in third world developing countries

Mother Jones magazine reports on how a Tanzanian is using solar power to generate enough electricity to power a small television for the purpose of watching the news.

(It occurs to me, the nations of the world where electricity is a luxury are often where support for terrorism grows. Meanwhile, ordinary people create social networks and cottage industries to access communication technologies.)

When my family lived in the Philippines for three years, during the 1970's, we appreciated the support of a domestic woman "maid" named Norma.  

Norma worked hard. She was dedicated to a goal of having her only son qualify for enlisting in the US Navy. Prior to qualifying, her son had to pass a written exam, but he needed an electric light to allow him to study, especially into the evening hours. Norma had to pay bribes to municipal officials to receive a permit to have one electric line extended from the grid into her modest house. Then, she had to pay for someone to install one electric bulb with a switch. After the installation, she paid expensive electric bills. Nevertheless, Norma was determined to see her son qualify for enlistment in the US Navy, so she worked tirelessly to earn money to pay for one electric light bulb.

Unfortunately, little has changed regarding the allocation of electricity in third world countries, like the Philippines.  

Nevertheless, entrepreneurial efforts have created opportunities for developing nations to participate in using modern technologies.

When my husband and I visited Cambodia a few years ago, we commented on how many people used cell phones. In fact, it seemed like every person had use of a cell phone. How did these telephone batteries access electric charges in a nation where most people didn't have electricity? It so happened, people could afford cell phones because the Cambodian government offered subsidies to promote the service. Those who owned a cell phone participated in gas powered generator co-ops, to provide the electricity needed to charge the phones. Each user paid a charging fee, thereby spreading the cost of the generator across the number of people who accessed the electrical service to charge their cell phones.

Mother Jones: There's a Place in the World That Is Fighting Poverty with Solar Power. Solar power is taking off in villages where connecting to the grid is seen as a bad joke. (I remember how much graft Norma paid to access one line off the grid.)

Lusela Murandika just wants to be able to watch the evening news.

The 76-year-old farmer lives in Kanyala village in northern Tanzania, 60 miles from the nearest town that's connected to the electric grid. For years, he's powered a tiny TV set in the dim sitting room of his concrete house here with a diesel generator, spending roughly $10 each month on fuel—money that could otherwise buy more than 20 pounds of rice in a country where the per capita GDP is $695.

Earlier this year, on the advice of friends, he invested $400 in a small, 80-watt solar system. After charging all day under the East African sun, it can run his TV for two hours. The system was a pain in the neck to install, he says, and the battery is unreliable, but it's still an improvement over the generator. And here, as in most of rural Africa, there aren't many options.

"It's a joke to think we'll all be connected to the grid," he says with a rueful grin.

Nineteen percent of the global population lives without access to electricity, according to the International Energy Agency. In Africa, that number is 58 percent. The vast majority of those without power are in rural areas. In Tanzania specifically, 86 percent of the population has no electricity, a fact that was illustrated when the lights cut out at President Obama's hotel in Dar es Salaam during a visit he made there last year to dedicate $7 billion for energy access improvements across the continent.

Tanzanians still get 76 percent of their energy—mostly for heating and cooking—from charcoal, wood, and other biomass. So there's more at stake than turning on the lights: Indoor air pollutionkills more than 4 million people every year, more than AIDS and malariacombined. Increasing access to clean energy is literally a matter of life or death.

In Tanzania, the population is predominantly rural and scattered in small villages across vast reaches of terrain, while the state-owned utility is chronically cash-strapped and urban-focused. So Murandika's pessimism about the grid is almost certainly justified. But, just as the mobile phone revolution in Africa dramatically reduced the need for telephone landlines, solar power is now leapfrogging the electric grid. Like Murandika, thousands of rural Africans are turning to solar as the solution, in a clean-energy boom that development experts say could become a catalyst for widespread economic empowerment.

These aren't the oceanic fields of solar panels some German entrepreneurs have proposed to build in the Sahara, nor the grid-connected rooftop systems that power entire American homes. Instead, these are small kits that come complete with the necessary panels, wiring, power converters, and batteries to power a few lightbulbs, a small appliance, or a cellphone charger.

The ingenuity of developing nations' populations to create access to electricity is impressive. Yet, it remains to be seen whether or not these ambitions will mobilize them to oppose pervasive government corruption and destructive terrorism networks.

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