This article from yesterday’s New York Times is a good companion piece to my recent post about Kenya’s M’KOPA. Nigeria, the subject of the Times article, is more than 2000 miles from Kenya, but both countries are part of the same situation.
Over the last 50 years, African governments have seen the mass availability of electricity as a key to ending poverty in their countries. The problem is that these governments imported highly centralized systems from the US and Europe. These systems were expensive to build, and imposed heavy long term debt on Africans. These systems are also very expensive to maintain.
Although wealthy oil-producing countries like Nigeria have a lot of oil to fuel their generating plants, the same ruling classes that rake off billions from oil exports also fail to invest in the maintenance that these expensive systems require for transmission and distribution.
Here is Mr. Adichie’s description of the situation in Nigeria:
Whenever I have been away from home for a while, my first question upon returning is always: “How has light been?” The response, from my gateman, comes in mournful degrees of a head shake.
Bad. Very bad.
The quality is as poor as the supply: Light bulbs dim like tired, resentful candles. Robust fans slow to a sluggish limp. Air-conditioners bleat and groan and make sounds they were not made to make, their halfhearted cooling leaving the air clammy. In this assault of low voltage, the compressor of an air-conditioner suffers — the compressor is its heart, and it is an expensive heart to replace. Once, my guest room air-conditioner caught fire. The room still bears the scars, the narrow lines between floor tiles smoke-stained black.
Sometimes the light goes off and on and off and on, and bulbs suddenly brighten as if jerked awake, before dimming again. Things spark and snap. A curl of smoke rises from the water heater. I feel myself at the mercy of febrile malignant powers, and I rush to pull my laptop plug out of the wall. Later, electricians are summoned and they diagnose the problem with the ease of a long acquaintance. The current is too high or too low, never quite right. A wire has melted. Another compressor will need to be replaced.
Mr. Adichie is a fiction writer, and his technical analysis is not all it should be in this piece, but he paints a clear picture of a distribution system with extremely poor voltage regulation, due mainly to failures to maintain substations and transformers, as well as deteriorating distribution and transmission lines.
Mr. Adichie describes how urban Nigerians (Rural Nigerians, like rural Kenyans simply have no access to centralized electricity.) cope with their collapsing grid. He keeps a diesel generator available and runs it regularly. He also owns a battery bank with an inverter to invert the AC from the central grid to the batteries’ DC current and then back again to AC when he uses electricity in his home. When the centralized grid is on, he charges his batteries. When power quits completely, he has some backup capacity.
Mr. Adichie’s personal solutions don’t really solve Nigeria’s electricity problems. In fact, running his battery charger from the electric grid simply adds more loads to a system already beyond its capacity. Running a generator simply shifts his energy source to the country’s overtaxed retail diesel fuel system. Fuel is expensive, and, like Nigeria’s electricity, it’s quality is often poor.
Rural West Virginians face this same bad set of choices when our electrical system fails. My neighbors immediately fire up their gas generators when Mon Power goes down. For the next two days, all of the local gas stations run out of gas, because everyone needs fuel to keep their generators running. The problem is not solved, it is just pushed to a different fragile system. And people burn even more gas just driving around to find an open gas station.
As I have learned, and as people in rural Kenya are learning, we don’t need to consume massive amounts of electricity. We just need enough. When we become wise about what electricity we need, we find that we can produce our own electricity. That lesson is the same in a Kenyan village as it is in Chloe, WV.
There are more connections between WV and rural Africa than you might think. New Vision in Philippi, WV is bring solar-powered light and real reliable power to villages from Kenya to Liberia. They are doing what West Virginians do best, helping their neighbors, even when their neighbors are 5000 miles away.