Saturday, September 30, 2006


After a substantial hiatus, Heliotropic is back...

Well, 5 weeks in Tanzania. Quite an experience. When I get all the photos on flickr, they will be linked here...

My work with Engineers Without Borders was primarily to scope out the situation on the ground in terms of availability of PV and accessories, and also to provide training to villagers who will eventually be responsible for the care of a PV system we plan to install on the village dispensary (clinic).

From an energy perspective, I felt both hopeful and frustrated. Hopeful because Tanzanians have a real opportunity to implement a sustainable energy future, yet frustrated because these goals are elusive and just out of reach.

As I see it, most of the pieces are in place for a distributed, clean energy system - solar, wind, and micro hydro. The main thing that is needed is for distributors to extend their supply chains out further, and for ordinary people to have access to micro-credit. The technology exists and people are educated enough that training competent technicians should not be an issue.

The motto of SELCO in India - which has a model of setting up businesses to distribute micro-solar lighting systems - is that solar is expensive for the rich, but cheap for the poor. This seems to be true in Tanzania.

The energy intensity of Tanzania is low, even in urban areas, but especially in rural places. In Ngelenge, the village I worked in, people have very limited uses for electricity. Light is typically provided by kerosene, and some people buy dry cell batteries to power radios.

Kerosene and batteries are very expensive - more so than in the US. A simple PV system - enough for a couple of efficient lights and a radio - would readily pay for itself within a couple of years, yet could easily last more than 10 years.

In the cities, the vast majority of power is provided by hydro. Due to an ongoing drought, however, power is rationed nearly everywhere. So, diesel generators are common where there is grid power and these are used quite a lot.

Despite this, demand-side management doesn't seem to be a very high priority. In urban areas, it seems as if they could greatly alleviate the rotating blackout issue simply by switching to more efficient lights. CFLs are available, at least in Dar, yet are not common even in places one might expect them to be.

In addition, power quality is lousy. Every computer, photocopier, and A/C unit is plugged into small power conditioning devices to prevent them from getting fried. This adds a hidden cost for many end-users of electricity. Experience has shown that PV can be very useful for utilities, if located properly (near critical substations) to provide grid support at peak use times and thus prevent some power quality issues.

One piece of good news is that the government seems quite enthusiastic about PV. They've dropped the VAT (which at 20% is substantial) on PV imports and is working with Energy For Sustainable Development (ESD) and the National Microfinance Bank (NMB) to roll out PV systems throughout the country.

Our EWB chapter is hoping to leverage this as part of our project. The area we were working in has many PV projects, with equipment brought in and installed by European NGOs. Of course, they are all in various states of disrepair despite well-trained technicians. Why? It is very difficult and/or expensive to get parts. The supply chain just isn't there. So the projects fail.

Working with ESD, we hope to incentivize the extension of supply chains into the countryside. This is accomplished by stipulating in contracts to put in bigger systems (such as the village dispensary) that the winning bidder must set up a distribution center in a nearby town with the economy to support it. This would be a place where goods of equivalent value are sold, such as TVs and motorbikes. Also, such a contract would require the winning bidder to train local technicians.

So, many of the pieces are already in place. What is the role of US engineers in all of this? Rather than planning the installation, bringing in equipment from the States, and installing it, we prefer to utilize and reinforce the local resources. So as I see it, our role should be limited to helping NGEDEA - the local NGO - evaluate the bids, to provide expert oversight during the implementation process to make sure NGEDEA doesn't get ripped off, and training as needed. That's about it. Everything else can and should be handled by Tanzanians.

Meanwhile, the government is trying to make up for the hydropower shortfall by building a couple of coal plants. It seems to me that this is not the best call. On the other hand, that's a difficult thing to say coming from a place where I have power whenever I want to flick a switch and economy that isn't faltering due to a lack of reliable power.

There is a good model in the country for distributed generation, which is cell phones. The coverage is quite impressive and it is entirely private sector. They use pre-paid card system. A popular addition to many small street businesses is phone access - you pay per minute to use their phone.

This model is pushing telecom rapidy out into rural Tanzania, which is in the process of leapfrogging wired telephony. It seems natural that small-scale distributed energy should ride along with it. After all, people will need to charge their phones.

There's another aspect of PV that is perhaps less tangible, but extremely important. That is the feeling I got from rural people that one big reason they want to get PV is to for once, be on the leading edge of a trend instead of always getting the leavings from other societies; to get access to and knowledge about advanced technology.

In my trainings, people were incredibly grateful and enthusiastic aboout being taught about solar. They felt in the loop, empowered, with unique knowledge that they could share - and perhaps some day even get paid for (in the case of the technicians). Black market PV is available in Ngelenge, coming across form Malawi, and some people have spent a lot of money to get it. The simple act of doing some consumer education, to help people from getting ripped off, seemed quite worthwhile.

Meanwhile, as in the States, transportation energy is a huge issue. Again, Tanzania seems to be well positioned to transition itself to a more sustainable situation, economically and environmentally. Private vehicles are extremely rare, rather people mostly ride buses for longer distances and dala-dalas (small minibuses) in urban areas. Lots of people walk and ride bikes. Diesel powered vehicles are the norm; I saw very few gasoline-powered cars, even small ones.

Diesel, like kerosene, is extremely expensive - $6 / gallon in the city and more like $8 / gallon in the countryside.

Tanzania is an agricultural country with a tropical coastline and is well equipped to grow oil crops. With diesel prices where they are, biodiesel seems like a natural fit for their economy. Many people I spoke to were aware of, and interested in, biodiesel; yet no one was aware of any production, or plans for production. A ridiculous amount of Tanzania's GNP must go towards petroleum imports, to places that most Tanzanians are not too fond of (a legacy of Arab dominance of the slave trade, and more recently, the 1998 bombing of the US Embassy in Dar Es Salaam by Al Qaida). A solution is readily at hand. Is the probem a lack of awareness or know-how? A stranglehold on the fuel distribution networks (dominated by BP)? A lack of capital to start a new and unproven business? Perhaps all of the above...

In any event, I very much hope that in my work with EWB, beyond providing solar energy to a dispensary in one rural village, we will be able to implement a new model that empowers Tanzanians while rolling out clean electricity.