During his recent visit to Africa, President Obama unveiled a $7 billion plan to double electricity generation in the continent over the next five years. “Power Africa” is an ambitious U.S. government initiative to upgrade Africa’s power grid, meeting a significant infrastructure development need while also spurring foreign investment into the African power sector.
We commend President Obama’s recent Power Africa initiative. Electrical infrastructure investment in Africa is a truly admirable goal with excellent practical development benefits. While the initiative should be strongly supported, given the enormous need for electricity in much of Africa, the real challenge is how this initiative can move forward benefiting the highest number of Africans.
Private sector partnerships will soon be formed to market, develop and install or upgrade existing electric utilities in the most accessible cities. In these urban areas, there will be many electric power system options and opportunities for small-scale businesses to operate and provide technical support to existing electric utility systems to be expanded and upgraded.
However, as the White House website correctly states, only 15 percent of the population in Africa is based in urban areas, while 85 percent of the population resides in more remote rural areas.
The challenge therefore becomes how to extend electricity to remote off-grid rural areas, where the majority of Africans live and work. As traditional centralized power systems require electrical power transmission lines, extending electrical services to rural areas would require new costly electric line transmission infrastructure.
For rural decentralized electricity development, appropriate energy alternatives include solar photovoltaic (PV) and wind electric turbine systems, now manufactured in Asia, Europe and the US, which are practical, proven and increasingly economical technologies.
Rural electric distribution could be based at rural community centers as a starting point for small-scale “micro-grid” sites for demonstrating future expansive rural electricity networks.
ISSP ‘Power Africa Schools Initiative’
Our Power Africa Schools Initiative will address this rural challenge head-on, in an educational and creative approach. As a nonprofit organization with a mission to link classrooms globally through the Internet, ISSP is in a unique position to identify and work closely with rural schools connecting classrooms to the Internet. In order to accomplish this goal, we realize that a reliable source of ‘off-grid’ electricity will be needed. Fortunately, appropriate small-scale solar PV technology already exists to support these rural school electrical needs.
African schools, in addition to being centrally located in most rural communities, also have an important educational focus. Envisioned are schools becoming demonstration centers for renewable solar-electric systems, meeting various immediate needs such as lighting and water pumping, in addition to recharging small laptop computers and tablets, while also powering Wi-Fi modems for Internet connections and classroom use.
These same schools could also become training centers for students to learn about basic Information Communication Technology for Development (ICTD), including alternative renewable energy systems such as solar and wind electric technologies. We envision programs training students on system installation and maintenance, which will also provide entrepreneurship opportunities for students leaving school. Expanded micro-grid development of these small power systems in rural areas will also greatly benefit the communities in which they are based.
Note: The President of the ISSP Board, Jonathan Berkey, served for two years as a volunteer with the Peace Corps in the mid-1980’s in Morocco, North Africa, working with the Ministry of Energy at the Centre de Developpement des Engeries Renouvelables (Center for Development of Renewable Energy) in Marrakesh. Through this Center, some of the first solar and wind electric systems were researched, designed and installed in this Northern region of Africa. Over twenty-five years later, both solar and wind energy businesses are commercially flourishing throughout Morocco. At that time, it took a model partnership between the US Agency for International Development (USAID) and Moroccan government (Ministry of Energy) to research, develop, introduce and demonstrate these energy technologies in their early years, prior to successful adoption by private sector entrepreneurs.