Monday, February 2, 2009

Rural Electric Systems

The world is in recession. And with the drop in demand for different fuels, it becomes a little harder to see when we will return to the teetering balance between available supply and demand. Certainly the price increases that happened last year have not totally dropped back and eased the discomfort in places such as India. The current price of gas remains high out of Russia, and the agreements that Eastern European countries will now pay prevailing prices for their gas, will be an increasing burden on their economies.

There is, however, an underlying desire by governments in the less well-developed countries to increase the availability of electricity to their rural regions. Whether it be in Africa or Asia, the arrival of power in a village can make a drastic difference in the quality of life. It has been suggested that the initial impact, however, relates more to female than male employment. And yet levels of penetration are not yet that great. For example, Botswana has about 12% connectivity, while Zambia is estimated to have only 2.2% connectivity. Many of these countries, with the aid of foreign governments, intend to radically improve these percentages.

The original target for Zambia was to have 50% access by 2010 and the country is concluding an agreement with Japan for $550 million with a grant from Sweden for $30 million also in the works. And yet current power outages make even the existing network insufficient to meet the need, with health centers being reduced to working by candle light. However, in contrast to Zimbabwe and Botswana, Zambia generates most of its power from hydro-electric sources, and the failure of one of the turbines has exacerbated the current problem.

The shortage highlights, however, the problems in creating a new set of power sources to meet the needs for the rural program. It is not sufficient to provide the connections to the grid, if the grid is not itself sufficient to meet the needs it will face. For Zambia the immediate solution is the construction of the Itezhi-Tezhi 120 MW power station. and increasing the capacity of existing hydro-electric schemes. In these efforts the partnerships are being formed with Indian and Chinese contractors.

Boosting hydro-electric production is also seen as helping in Bhutan, where the Asian Development Bank is funding the Green Power Development Project which will not only provide power to rural Bhutan, but will also provide export power to India, reducing their need for fossil fuels.

In Mali Jatropha has been used to produce power in a pilot plant at Garalo . At present the plantation has been formed, but it will take a couple of years to generate the seeds (one gets around 2 kg/tree/year) in sufficient volume for the plant. A ton of seeds produces 250 kg of oil, and 750 kg of filtercake, which can be used as a fertilizer. The oil has to be pre-heated and filtered before it can be fed into the generators, of which the village has 3 at 100 kV.

Jatropha is not, however, as productive as was once thought, with collection being more labor intensive and yields being relatively low at around 2 tons per hectare. Thus originally optimistic projections for its use are now being qualified. Yet just today a relatively large (180 million gallon/year) refinery has been announced. A market for the fuel has been helped by the passage of the Biofuels act in the Philippines that requires that 1% biodiesel shall be blended into fuel in 3 months, rising to 2% in 2 years. The only alternative to jatropha in country at the moment is a plant that produces coconut oil, and that is meeting 55% of the current demand for biodiesel.

While biodiesel has, therefore some advocates moving forward, as a fuel supplement, and can be used for power generation, quite often the funding initiatives have been oriented towards solar electricity. Schedules are provided, for example, that show that 5 sq m of solar cells will supply a school with 16 lights, power for a projector, and a socket for a small electrical device. Solar also has the benefit of being installable in areas that are remote from the grid, and where running power lines would be expensive.

The Green Power Development project in Bhutan is one such, and supplies for 100 communities are planned in that endeavor. As I mentioned recently, the initial trials of the technology have gone over well with the nomadic yak herders, reducing their need for firewood and kerosene.
Herders from Nubri and Soie Yaksa said alternative energy technologies like solar lighting and the one- and two-holed metallic solar cooker were very useful and convenient. “The small portable solar light is the best. We can take it along with us whereever we go,” said Tobgay from Nubri.

Nado from Soie Yaksa said that use of solar had reduced the danger of burns, cooking time, and saved firewood. Norza Gem from Soie Yaksa said that she could cook faster, churn milk and round up cattle at night.

A report from CORRB states that the use of kerosene has been reduced by 90% in these areas.
. One of the recognized problems is that of maintenance and repair. This can be partially overcome by having the lamps etc rented, and recharging them at a central facility. Such an operation in Laos has grown into a small business. In Bhutan, however, they recruited local women to learn how to deal with the problems. The Barefoot Solar Engineers had to walk 5 hours to a local road and then on to India’s Barefoot College in order to learn how to do the repair, and one of the engineers now maintains systems in 30 villages – not bad for someone whose formal education stopped at grade 5.

There are many such encouraging stories of such a nature at the local level, and from them one can anticipate that electricity demand will grow steadily. But the next question will come as demand rises above that needed at this scale. But then that is a topic for another day.

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