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World Economic Forum: Towards an Electranet?
Ethan Zuckerman, 14 Jun 07

One of the morning’s sessions at the World Economic Forum’s meeting in Cape Town promised to address a topic I’ve been thinking about the past few days - power generation for Africa. As African economies grow, they are bumping up against power constraints, discovering that the inability to provide adequate power to their citizenry slows business growth and leads to a pissed-off citizenry. (Sorry to get into technical economic terms…) This session introduces the concept of an “electranet”, a flexible, adhoc structure like the Internet that could allow power producers to spill their excess power onto a network and sell their power. It’s possible that an “electranet” would grow on a grassroots basis, connecting otherwise disconnected villages that had started to generate their own power, eventually growing to connect to the grid built by the government and by large power providers.

It’s a vision I find compelling - it would be remarkable to see communities, supported by local and diaspora funding, decide to start producing and selling their own power, and to create a grid that subsumes the existing grid, much as mobile phones have displaced and obviated land lines. But there’s a lot of skepticism in the room from two different sides.

One of the panelists is a energy expert from rural India. His recent work has focused on biogas, harvesting manure from cows, fermenting it and using the resulting gas to cook, provide gas mantle lights and to produce small amounts of electrical power. The region he works in has good hydropower potential, which enables micro and “picohydro”. He points to the possibility of generating electricity via wood, or through oil extracted from forest seeds. To use this power efficiently, they distribute LED lights, which can operate for 60 hours after a brief charging period.

He’s skeptical that these power generation systems scale beyond household or village networks, and very skeptical that governments will allow the creation of village grids. He points to the fact that electricity in India - which usually costs 2-3 rupees per kilowatt hour - would cost 15 rupees per kilowatt hour if it were not subsidies. The subsidy comes through building wires to these villages as a public good. When villages try to build their own electrical connectivity, they’re charged for the wires, the transformers and the full freight of the cost. Village-based power generation isn’t “sexy” enough for the government to pay attention to: “Prime Ministers don’t inaugurate biogas plants.”

The head of a UK company that focuses on human and animal power (you know the one - under Chatham House rules, I’m not supposed to tell you who…) talks about the potential of power generation via bullocks. A generator can produce 350 watts for three hours at a time before you need to switch bulls - that’s enough power to provide radio and lighting for a small village. He believes that “bespoke” power solutions can help close the power gap which, he notes, is massive - Africa is 20% electrified, and that figure includes South Africa and the wealthier countries of North Africa - the electrification figures in poor countries is probably under 5%. Unfortunately, solar and wind aren’t yet options for these bespoke solutions, as they require “double digit years” to pay back this investment. Being able to provide this power in rural areas is critical in part because of mobile phones - he points to the absurdity of people sending phones by mail to major cities so they can be charged up and sent back.

An audience member - a builder of large power systems - objects to the direction of the discussion. He points out that there’s a massive, continent-wide deficit in electricity, exacerbated by the hypergrowth of countries like Ghana, which are rapidly using up their generation capacity. “Doing this bottom up will be too little, too late.” Human and animal power won’t allow people “to run a blacksmiths or a machining shop” - instead, the investment must be from the top down in major hydro, gas, coal and oil plants.

A representative from a UK power producer focused on biomass believes that village-level power is a possibility. The technology his company works with can generated from a few hundred watts to 65 Megawatts - his most intriguing product is a generator the size of a car engine which can power a cellular mast through biofuels and provide excess power to the surrounding village. The problem, he sees, is getting support from governments, the licenses to grow biomass and to generate using these renewable materials.

Again, I don’t know what’s state of the art in this field, but there appears to be a huge gap for power generation on the village and regional level that isn’t yet being well addressed, at least in an African context.

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The idea of an "electranet" was put forth at the end of 2006 by Al Gore in "Newsweek":
with an approach encompassing both developing and developed countries:
"Taking a page from the early development of ARPANET, which ultimately became the Internet, we will rely on new kinds of distribution networks for electricity and liquid fuels. We will be less dependent on large, centralized coal-generating plants and massive oil refineries. Societies of the future will rely on small, diversified and renewable sources of energy, ranging from windmills and solar photovoltaics to second-generation ethanol- and biodiesel-production facilities. Widely dispersed throughout the countryside, these streamlined facilities will make the industrialized world more secure and less dependent on unstable and threatening oil-producing nations. Off-grid applications of renewable power sources can provide energy for the 3 billion people now stuck in poverty.
In the industrialized world, these systems will require a newly designed distribution grid. An "electranet," or smart grid, will be flexible and allow homeowners and businesses to sell or buy electricity on to and off of the grid."

Posted by: BrunoG on 15 Jun 07

An absurd idea, I think, because infrastructure costs are prohibitive. Villages can never fund a grid, let alone produce excess.

Top-down works better. Build the Inga Dam, and Africa's electricity problems are solved. Actually, NEPAD is finally going to do it.

Posted by: Gio on 15 Jun 07

Bad - Top down idea with large dams and thermal power. Read Arundhati roy to get the math of why big dams are a net loss of energy;

Bad - Electrnet - there goes Al gore again, having invented the internet now he wants to lay claim to Electranet - nice! It is an absurd model from the eighteenth century to have centralized power generation and high voltage transmission across untold miles.

Good - is distributed power generation, in which ever way. the connections will follow with need and market forces. Just start generating what a village needs and the rest will follow - organically.

Good - more than electricity, the first inverstment should be a grid of roads. A single twenty kilometer 4 lane road will work the magic (four lanes to prevent accidents where rickety trucks run over cattle and pedestrians / bicyclists in the night); next investment should be water; third sanitation; market forces will then bring in the electricity, internet and the cell phones and we are done.

I am used to nobody paying attention to what I say, but say I will. Thanks for the post ethan.

Posted by: Subbarao Seethamsetty on 16 Jun 07

A few days ago I found this (click on my nickname for the link):

Welcome to TREC

Support TREC by joining the Campaign "Give TREC Your Voice"

The Trans-Mediterranean Renewable Energy Cooperation (TREC) is an initiative, in the field of renewable forms of energy, of The Club of Rome, the Hamburg Climate Protection Foundation and the National Energy Research Center of Jordan (NERC).
Since it was founded in September 2003, it has developed the DESERTEC concept for energy, water and climate security in EUrope, the Middle East and North Africa (EU-MENA), building on the cooperation of sun-belt and technology belt. Now TREC is making this concept a reality in cooperation with people in politics, industry and the world of finance.

Sketch of possible infrastructure for a sustainable supply of power to EUrope, the Middle East and North Africa.
Sketch of possible infrastructure for a sustainable
supply of power to EUrope, the Middle East and North Africa.

The DESERTEC concept of TREC is to boost the generation of electricity and desalinated water by Solar Thermal Power Plants and wind turbines in MENA and to transmit the clean electrical power via High Voltage Direct Current (HVDC) transmission lines throughout those areas and as from 2020 (with overall just 10-15% transmission losses) to Europe.

Posted by: lugon on 17 Jun 07

Subbarao Seethamsetty, I read what you said but disagreed.

Hydro dams are an incredible source of energy, and do seem to have a positive ERoEI. The problem is they take so long to build, do some serious environmental damage, and most good sites are already used. Micro-hydro seems underutilized.

Also, why on earth would we want to build 4 lane highways in Africa? They should push beyond petroleum right now, and leapfrog over all the problems the west is going to face with "peak oil". Google "Peak Oil" if you don't know what I am talking about, or watch the ABC's "Crude", the story of oil and how we are about to enter the final oil crisis when production of this foul stuff goes into permanent decline.

You can watch "Crude" here.

Africa — as well as the first world — need to electrify all transport systems as fast as possible. This is an emergency. It will take decades to fix and there is no alternative liquid fuel that can be scaled up to run what we are running on cheap oil.

So... upgrade renewable energy systems (most of which produce electricity), upgrade the ports for more "Solar Sailor" shipping, and convert Car and Aircraft factories into the emergency construction of trams and trains. (Trains are 8 times more efficient with energy JUST because steel on rail is 8 times more efficient than rubber tires on roads.... let alone extra efficiency from electrifying the system instead of using thousands of individual Internal Combustion Engines.)

It's going to be rough, but the other side of this is worthwhile. Then we'll have energy independent nations, and never need another oil war again.

Posted by: Dave Lankshear on 17 Jun 07

Ethan, Here is a blueprint of Indian governments plan for distributed generation for Rural India electrification with a 1 billion+ dollars investment announced recently. PDF link is .

Dave, about dams, if you include the soft costs of the destruction to habitat, agricultural land, millions of displaced lives (including human beings) and spreading those costs over a few centuries, your ERoEI will get a lot of OoOoO and we can throw a 'b' in front. I know you are a well wisher and this is not directed at you but at the likes of world bank and IMF which manipulate governments to agree to these mega projects to enrich their constituents. To repeat, Arundhati Roy, who is an architect by training, details the math and presents a powerful argument which I subscribe to.

About the 20 KM 4 lane highway proposal, the unstated corollary was that 200 km of eight lane highways would be demolished in the western world for every 20 km built in Africa :) because of the peak oil issue - Is that an Unreasonable suggestion? Just stop and think for a moment when you begrudge Africa of a single road. Roads take the place of rivers and water bodies in years bygone as facilitators of commerce and living for marginalized communities. And peak oil apart, why won't the road be used for muscle powered activity like walking, roller blading, or bicycling and push cart transportation for 200 lbs of freight per cart? A single road will allow the NGOs to reach distant communities to provide life sustaining aid.

Invariably and occasionally you should expect some corrupt politicians and world bank dignitaries using the road to travel in their Mercedes S500 vehicles and the occasional lorries (trucks) belonging to the ruling class taking advantage of the roads. In such circumstances, 2 lanes in each direction saves lives because the pedestrians (on the high ways - Yes sir), bicyclists, and the goat herds do not get run over since the vehicles have room to travel.

The road will facilitate thousands of opportunities for micro-financed development projects and that is a win-win for everyone on the planet. We are all inexorably linked at the hip on this space ship planet earth and share all the winnings and the losses.

Posted by: Subbarao Seethamsetty on 23 Jun 07



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