Solar Power isn't Feasible!

Solar Power isn't Feasible!
This cartoon was on the cover of the book "SolarGas" by David Hoye. It echoes the Sharp Solar slogan "Last time I checked nobody owned the sun!"

Monday, February 11, 2008

Africa: The Dark Continent?

A recent newspaper article states that the South African government knew they were going to experience shortfalls in electricity supply sometime around 2007. Now, at the beginning of 2008, the predicitions have come to roost: South Africa - often considered the most productive and stable of the African economies as well as the linchpin and yardstick for progress elsewhere in the beleagured continent - is in turmoil. The lights have gone out and power has repeatedly failed, making South Africa literally the darkest place on what was once called (usually for perjorative reasons) "TheDark Continent". The culprit is a practice known as "load levelling" - something utilities have to do to keep the grid from collapsing entirely: they must shut off supply to various areas on a rotating basis to keep demand in tune with supply. We did it in Los Angeles during the period of "Rolling Blackouts" at the end of the last century and beginning of the millenium (only later did we learn that the blackouts were mostly the result of Dick Cheney's Enron corporation selling California's cheaper electricity for a higher rate in other states!)

The results in South Africa are worse than what we experienced in California:With restaurants, shops and industries foundering for lack of electricity, inoperable fuel pumps and traffic lights stalling traffic, and city services crippled, South African commerce and tourism is grinding to a halt (not least of which because of the fear of rampant instability and safety threats in a country that already has a reputation for high rates of violent crime and a 26% (?) unemployment rate. Think of the Elizabeth Shue thriller "The Trigger Effect" set in Johannesburg...

But there may be a light at the end of the tunnel, figuratively and literally: The South African government has pledged to immediately subsidize the purchase and installation of solar hot water systems (since electric heating of water can consume a full third of the electricity needed for a household) and to start putting in photovoltaic electric systems. This is what we call "load shaving" -- removing some of the load on the electric power plants by replacing it with decentralized sources of energy -- solar energy is particularly well suited for load shaving because it shines most during the times when the most energy hungry appliances are used (air conditioners for example) and electricity is needed (daytime industrial production, daytime traffic and office lights etc), and the heat and light it provides for water and electricity can be thermally, chemically or gravitationally stored to offset demand during cloudy days and at night.

Perhaps the city of Cairo Egypt in North Africa, which has also predicted shortfalls of electricity in the next few years, can learn from its antipodal neighbor in the southern part of the continent, and start an agressive campaign to get renewable energy in place before the crisis hits. We at Solar CITIES, who are already building solar hot water systems in the inner city areas of Cairo and training local people in the arts and sciences of renewable energy, wouldn't mind at all getting a little "before the fact" assistance from the government and international donors. We often say we must learn from history, but as my professor Ed Soja (UCLA Urban Planning) might say, "that would privilege time over space". Let us now say "we must learn from current events, from what is happening here and now in another PLACE not too far away. And let us apply those lessons, to keep Africa from becoming "The Dark Continent".


Anonymous said...

South Africa? lol! Ever heard of nigeria...SA has no challenges when compared to Nigeria. Nigeria has the biggest challenges with electricity generation on the continent when comparing that to the size of the population. It is routine for tens of millions of nigerians to go weeks at a time without light.


T.H. Culhane said...

Glad you pointed that out to our readers, AO! My wife and her family lived in Nigeria when she was a child and are very fond of the country and I worked with a good Nigerian friend at the Wadi Environmental Science Center and at the American University in Cairo who used to tell me of his country's development problems. The sad thing is that the newspapers rarely report the problems besetting Nigeria (though we do hear about the rapacious activities of the oil companies and the brave resistance of the locals, women in particular). My comments were inspired by reading the report in international newspapers on the power failures in South Africa, but I would have to agree with you that the situation in Nigeria is far worse. I think all of this speaks to the desperate and urgent need to get solar and other renewables into African cities and build capacity. I do certainly hope that "the sunsgonnashine" in Nigeria and be utilized to bring prosperity to the people! Thanks for commenting!