Electranets, Hippos at WEF and Cheetahs.

Electranets, hygridding, network of mini grids, the new idea in electrification by any other name sounds just as cool.

After the hopeful and progressive afterglow of TED Global, I find myself thinking about three things this morning. The first is â??What do Africans (including myself of course) aspire to be?â?? what reality are we creating for ourselves and our children? and As Nik Nesbitt of Kencall would say, â??how do you make Africa relevant?â??

I will look at several stories and ideas today with energy-tinted glasses , and attempt to make them relevant despite the fact that the topic of energy is not as sexy as sayâ?¦ Africa 2.0 or Andrew Dosunmuâ??s pictures.

The idea of an electranet or hygridding is not new, I have blogged about it several times and remain a staunch proponent of it.

The reason why I see energy generation as important is because as Ory said, the circumstances under which you live in Africa determine where you end up. Itâ??s not a wonder that I am here writing. Even though I lived in a rural home, we had electricity and thus the amenities that come with them, most important of these being the TV and radio, which opened up my mind to what is beyond the rural world. Point is if I wasnâ??t at a well lit table with my dad showing me how to do math problems in preparation for my exams, would I be here? In this African century, the tools that will continue to expand horizons for many in Africa include not just the TV and radio, but the mobile phone and computers. For Africans to fully participate and compete in the global market, information access is paramount, as is power to run the tools of information dissemination.

â??If it doesnâ??t need electricity, it canâ??t be any funâ? â?? Blooregard Q Kazoo, Fosters home for imaginary friends.

*the quote from bloo is just to liven up this post.

Rural electrification is a goal for many African governments, with demonstrable progress in Kenya where more people are getting tied to the grid as we speak. In my opinion African countries have a chance to shape the energy transformation in a way that is contextualized and appropriate for their communities. As reported by Ethan Zuckerman LHKB (The long haired king of blogging), the ongoing discussion at the WEF forum in South Africa brought up the issue of how this transformation should occur. â??â?¦top down in major hydro, gas, coal and oil plantsâ? or bottom up with mini grids making up an electranet â??a flexible, adhoc structure like the Internet that could allow power producers to spill their excess power onto a network and sell their power.â?

Now to the Hippo like part of this post; also from Ethan’s excellent coverage of WEF HippoCon….

An audience member – a builder of large power systems – objects to the direction of the discussion. He points out that thereâ??s a massive, continent-wide deficit in electricity, exacerbated by the hyper growth of countries like Ghana, which are rapidly using up their generation capacity. â??Doing this bottom up will be too little, too late.â? Human and animal power wonâ??t allow people â??to run a blacksmiths or a machining shopâ? – instead, the investment must be from the top down in major hydro, gas, coal and oil plants.

This is the kind of thinking that results in huge IMF loan funded projects being inaugurated by Hippo-like presidents where the country has a power plant alright, but the debt incurred from setting up said power plants saddles the country for decades to comeâ?¦Bonoâ??s activism notwithstanding. In the face of ideas like the electranet being shared, we have a major builder of power systems having a voice at the table saying that it would be too little too late. He is entitled to his opinion as I am mineâ?¦ and in a future where Africa is more relevant, we would have a cheetah-like leader at the WEF articulating what works for Africa. Not what someone else thinks is too little too late.

What I would wish for is for the Cheetah leader to articulate something along the lines of electranets and mini grids forming the foundation for energy expansion. Why? It is possible to have a grid that utilizes renewable energy from different sources, be it wind, like the marsabit wind turbine power plant or CSP concentrated solar power plants in the sahara. The large scale projects can provide a large chunk of the energy needed just as hydro electric power has done over the last decades in Kenya powering many industries. This is a top-down approach indeed, but look at the technology used, it is clean and renewable, not dirty â?? coal and expensive â?? oil. Africa cares about global warming too you know, what with the report from the economist pointing out that Africa will suffer more from climate change, the energy transformation of Africa needs to take into account this very fact.

That is why it is time to include the idea of netmetering or â??electranetsâ?? and having the people also contribute to provision of energy by being able to sell power to the grid as shared at the WEF. It would be self sustaining and even empowering. Yeah the pun in emPOWERing is very much intended.

Energy transformation may already be happening we just need to open our eyes, just read over at Bankeleleâ??s about kenyaâ??s energy budgetary allocation

energy rural electrification to be continued as mini grids will be set up in large towns. 8 billion has been allocated to deal with (anticipated?) energy shortages so they donâ??t hamper manufacturing processes

The next part (the aspirational bit) can we complete the loop of using mini grids, integrating renewable energy into the mix, community involvement in the form of partnerships to generate electricity and large scale investment funded projects to light the dark continent?

The big idea from TED was African solutions to African problems; I would like to add that sustainability and renewable energy can be just as African as fufu, ugali and matoke. We just have to open our eyes to the possibility, and urge our leaders to pursue strategies that include renewable energy sources. If Denmark can generate 20% of its energy needs using wind, and continue to pursue policies geared towards weaning themselves off of oil, well, Africa need not reinvent the wheel, there is clearly a roughdraft that energy policy can take into account when formulating the policies in energy transformation.

Back to the question that started this post â??What do Africans (including myself of course) aspire to be?â?? â?? We aspire to be self reliant, self determining and forward thinking.

What reality are we creating for ourselves and our children? â?? A reality of hopeful prospects in a clean environment free of pollution and degradation

â??How do you make Africa relevant?â?? â?? By making choices that work for Africa. Letâ??s really think about what is appropriate not just for the short term but for the long term too.

Update: Watch John Doerrs’ TED talk this year, its along the lines of what i was attempting to say. Very powerful, inspiring and spot on.

6 thoughts on “Electranets, Hippos at WEF and Cheetahs.

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  2. I’ve actually had discussions with people who are fairly close to the halls of power about the fact that we could be building the next stage of our energy infrastructure in the form of renewable energy.
    The problem again is that you are dealing mostly with hippos who are used to seeing the world in a very specific form. All these new-fangled ideas about energy generation seem like risking huge amounts of money on untested technology when we know coal or gas will do the job.

    As for your question about where we see ourselves in the future, that is the core problem. A lot of us really can’t imagine a world where we aren’t at the bottom of the food chain begging others for help. Until that changes we’ll stay where we are.

  3. Hello Kwasi, thanks for your comment! – I just had a conversation with someone who believes that Africa needs to go nuclear…which pragmatically speaking would indeed light up the continent, but what to do with the spent fuel rods? Stick them in a mountain like US does? Which community will live near the dumping site?

    “A lot of us really canâ??t imagine a world where we arenâ??t at the bottom of the food chain begging others for help. Until that changes weâ??ll stay where we are.”

    Yep. Rebranding, rethinking, reawakening…there is hope perhaps.

  4. Interesting you should mention Nuclear energy. I liase with the Atomic Energy Institute in Ghana as part of my job and there you will find a lot of really smart people who feel that the country should be looking hard at nuclear energy. I have the same misgivings you do about the idea though. While nuclear energy produces no carbon we will have to deal with the waste. I doubt if we are prepared to do it properly.
    Plus it makes no sense to me to go in that direction when we are easily capable of using renewable energy in both large scale and microgrid projects.

    Historical note: At the time Nkrumah was overthrown Ghana was weeks away from having a small functional nuclear reactor for power generation. We were just waiting for the fuel rods to arrive from the Soviets. After his overthrow the reactor was disassembled and shipped off. All that remains now is a concrete shell in the middle of the Atomic Energy Institute

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