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Reliable grid access is crucial to business growth and prosperity in Africa

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Local electricity: Africa goes off-grid

Tom Levitt

29th July, 2009

Giant wind farms may grab the headlines but plans to develop local off-grid electricity will have bigger impact on Africans and carbon emissions

Kenya made the headlines recently when it announced plans to build the continent's biggest wind farm. When they are up and running in 2012, the 300-odd wind turbines will produce a quarter of the country's power (300MW).

It's not the only African country to be investing in renewable energy either: Ethiopia and Tanzania have both announced smaller wind farm projects.

But what the headlines don't say is that no more than 20 per cent, and in some countries as little as 5 per cent, of the population in Africa has direct access to electricity. The only exceptions to this rule are South Africa and Egypt, and the figure in rural Africa falls to just 2 per cent.

Local power

What Africans need just as much, if not more than large flagship renewable energy projects is local off-grid power supplies.

Most will not have access to the centralised electricity network and even if they do, it does not guarantee them power. If there is a shortage, the rural areas are cut off first.

There is another major reason for local power generation in rural Africa - carbon emissions.

The proportion of people in Africa still dependent on inefficient energy technologies is higher than in any other continent. The dominant fuel for cooking or lighting in low-income African homes is wood or other biomass such as dung and crop wastes. Kerosene is also widely used.

Women and children

As well as the impact of deforestation and burning of wood on carbon dioxide emissions there are also health and social concerns for Africans.

Inefficient combustion of these types of materials in enclosed spaces has been associated with respiratory diseases and eye problems. In addition, the many hours women and children spend searching for wood could be spent in school or on other activities.

'If they had a reliable source of clean energy they won't have to be involved in this type of drudgery,' said Dr. Subhes Bhattacharyya from the Centre for Energy, Petroleum and Mineral Law and Policy, University of Dundee.

Dundee project

Dr Bhattacharyya is leading a research project to explore ways of making off-grid electricity generation a reality for less-industrialised countries.

'Just extending the grid does not help the poor as they always lose out when there are shortages. What they need is local power,' he said.

He said the challenge was to find power generation and supply models that could work in rural areas.

'There has been some examination in the past of the kinds of technology that could be used to help provide electricity supply in areas like this, whether it be solar energy or bio-energy and so on.

'However, what needs to be looked at in much greater detail is how this translates to the ground.

'It is about looking at the whole picture – how do we provide the electricity, who pays for it, what can it be used to do. This is not just about powering up televisions or running lightbulbs,  we have to look at how supply can be connected to remote regions and how it can best be used for the people there, and how they can sustain it themselves.

'It needs to be run by local businesses, not by government,' he added.

Dr Bhattachatyya expects to have a demonstration project up and running in India within two years. They hope the model will then be replicated across the less-industrialised world.

Useful links
BBC article on Ethiopia and solar power
Dundee University

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