Talking Drums

The West African News Magazine

The Energy Dilemma In West Africa

Poku Adaa

In the search for new forms of energy, many developing countries face a bewildering array of systems involving a wide range of technologies. POKU ADAA surveys the various choices generally accepted as feasible and evaluates their potentials and problems of application.
The population of the world is increasing and it is undeniable that more than half of this will come from developing countries by the end of the next two decades. The development of societies, in so far as standards of living, industrialisation, urbanisation, rural development and quality of life in general are concerned, is bound to be influenced by the form of national energy supplies.

Oil which has borne the wheel of progress so far may not be sufficiently available to the vast majority in the future. Thus there is a strong case for the development and utilization of alternate energy sources which may be derived from tapping into the energy flows that occur naturally and continuously in our environment.

Alternate energy sources as currently known can be broadly classified into Biomass, Solar Energy Technologies, Wind, Tidal and Wave energies, Geothermal Energy and Energy from Fuel Cells. Under these broad categories, there are about twenty or more different systems, which have some potential, varying in degrees of efficient energy generation and acceptability.

Energy from biomass may be due to the burning or organic digestion of human waste products, or due to the production of fuel from crops or due to the direct use of forest products to tap energy. Scientists from many developed countries have been investigating the conversion of municipal wastes into fuel for many years. A recent case for illustration has come from a University in Manchester in the United Kingdom, where 26 barrels of synthetic crude have been obtained from 10 tonnes of garbage at an estimated cost of about $15 per barrel.

Firewood, the oldest source of energy, can no longer be found in Africa's diminishing forests.

It certainly has a considerable potential to dispose of unwanted rubbish, yet the gadgetry to place this on a commercial scale does not appear to be everyman's dream. It will need a purpose built reactor with a means of achieving temperatures in excess of 200°C and a special substance which will speed up the production of the fuel. The logistics of waste collection, the segregation of this into the part that can burn to yield the oil and the pure trash, and the atmospheric contamination from burning organic wastes all have to be accounted for and considered in respect to this type of biomass energy tapping.

Fuels can be obtained from crops such as sugar cane, grains, sugar containing fruits, cassava, potatoes, etc., by fermentation, to produce alcohol which can be added to gasoline. Brazil is now famous for her alcohol-powered automobiles. It is generally a respectable system in Europe and already sales of over 150 million gallons per month have been recorded in the past two years. The problem is that it has a tendency to compete with already low food supplies and arable land, making the cost of such fuel very much dependent on the farming industry.

Though the principle is popular, the tendency to divert food into fuel making has not given it too much widespread application as one would have expected. Fuelwood has served many generations in the rural areas of developing countries for a long time, although the slow regeneration of trees and vegetation makes commercial fuelwood plantations seemingly unattractive and the scarce resources of land does not guarantee any future dependence of wood as fuel on any extensive scale.

The most important technology for tapping energy from the Sun is the 'Photovoltaics', which are an assembly of cells which are able to absorb the rays of the sun and convert them to electricity. It has gained international acceptability in so far as its potentials and capabilities are concerned. Truly, the potentials of photovoltaics are phenomenally extensive and its capabilities probably unlimited. Power for pumping water, for providing fresh water from sea water, for household electricity, for refrigeration of perishable food crops and medicines, for drying and processing of farm produce, in fact for everything that conventional electricity does today and maybe more.

It may be easily regarded as the Energy Panacea of the world's poor living in the tropics but the reality is that the costs are high, estimated to be from $10-$15 per watt of power output, ten times greater than conventional systems of generating power, and at current prices it has been estimated it would require $50,000 of photovoltaic cells to meet the power needs of a modern home, by American standards admittedly. And of the village, say, Abokiti in Ghana's hinterland? Well, energy planners unaware of these practicalities and the UNDP, the WHO and the World Bank and several other institutions in developed countries have been actively promoting photovoltaics, not only because it opens a large untapped market for multinationals, but there is a real genuine, often obsessed, belief that it holds out the greatest promise for mankind's future.

Consequently, these agencies and institutions are testing experimental systems around the globe. The American agency, NASA has been monitoring a prototype system in the village of Tangaye in the Republic of Upper Volta. In Tunisian villages, in Tanzania, in the Greek islands, in Thailand and in the Philippines, solar- powered systems are operating as test modules. In West Africa, Niger has a well-established Solar Energy Agency which has been marketing a 200-litre water heater for CFA 180,000.

Mali is a country that is well hooked on solar energy and at the moment, it has the most advanced on-stream solar energy utilisation in the sub-region with a full-fledged Solar Energy Laboratory. These countries have been the pathfinders in a newly emerging technology and lot of other a developing countries stand to gain from their teething problems and experiences. This does not detract from the obvious dilemma: Solar energy will not become cheap anytime in the immediate future.

Granted however that nothing in our modern world is cheap, do governments have to subsidise the power generation so that huts, cottages, villages and towns can light up when the sun shines, or should it benefit the rich in society?

Should it be centralised as a big power centre which is no different from say Akosombo dam or Kariba Dam, or should it be decentralised with say, Akuse district independently operating its own from Salaga district?


Solar energy is a marvellous idea. Cocoa can be dried faster under controlled conditions to yield high quality beans. That is understandable but where is the money to tap the sun's power in the first place? The obvious way out and as it is in all economic activities of poorer countries - is to go for foreign aid, loans and yet more loans, closing the vicious circle again with the cables of solar energy. If the developing countries were not so poor and dependent on other nations, I believe that by now even hydropower would have been flowing from every river and rivulet to every hut and cottage, so that under these circumstances alone, solar energy may not provide a preferable alternative and choice. The potential, yes... the practicality and acceptability. . . no, not yet. New forms of energy, developing countries must have but as inexpensively as could possibly be obtained.

There are several other variants of tapping the sun's energy for specified applications: Solar powered satellites which can convert sunlight into micro- waves and transmit them to earth receivers for conversion and feeding into electric power grids. Cost is astronomical and not the developing country's piece of cake.

The Americans plan to build sixty satellites two per year, from the year 2000; Thermal Diode Solar Collectors which can transfer the sun's energy into heat and proven to be useful for boiling water and which require very sunny climates; Solar Central receiver which uses special panels called 'Heliostats' to catch the sun's rays and use it to propel a circulating fluid to power electric generators.

This is very much in the development stage, costs very high and has a potential for large manufacturing plants; Solar Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion which uses sun-heated water to turn a fluid into vapour which is used to turn turbines. This has been visualised to become practicable in the next half century. There are Active and Passive Solar systems designed for heating homes, clearly suitable for the snowbound regions of the northern hemisphere.

Other forms of energy include the control of winds, tides and waves to turn turbines to produce electrical energy. These have geographical and environmental limitations and so far only countries like Korea and France have attempted to tap energy in this way. The costs are relatively modest. Wind energy depends on defined wind speeds which might vary from hour to hour. Small mills can generate 1-40 KW and large ones can generate up to 250 MW. It appears to offer a good potential of all the available options for rural areas. Efficient units are currently available although it needs a lot of spare parts for maintenance.

There is also geothermal energy. which is the result of the tapping of the earth's internal heat from underground. This depends on geo logical conditions and has been proven to be particularly suitable for the Rift Valley countries of East Africa. Indeed Kenya has the first operating system at Naivasha with a projected capacity of 150 MW.

Fuel Cells have been known for many years as a miniature in ordinary batteries. Large scale ones are bound to be popular in a year or two. But for its dependence on chemical substances, it would have been a reasonably good option. I cannot see it being economically better than today's diesel operated power stations.

Solar energy, especially photovoltaics have attracted potential and enjoy considerable support, not least among politicians and businessmen. It has become an international big business and the 'Oil Companies' are now calling themselves 'Energy Companies', and upwards to one billion dollars have been invested in the system. It has also become a national policy matter and governments and planning institutions of developing countries may be gearing themselves up for a global lobbying and competition for the market, and of course for politicians the opportunity to award contracts for fat kick-backs, which will alert the boys in uniform and…

On the contrary, I do like to face a matter straight in the face, however painful. Although the solar cell industry is still developing, still shrouded in research and tests, its practical use will tend to grow, and in time, it is conceivable that international cooperation and effort will resolve satisfactorily the cost factor, and the dream of the sun will become a daily reality.

In the attempt to seek alternate sources of energy, developing countries have to assess their plans from the viewpoint of other countries already using any particular system under comparable environmental circumstances to be able to make a choice and decide. If the problems of energy costs are to be reduced, development plans should take full advantage of all the natural resources available. The choice of any system should be guided by relative cos durability of the system and by ability to improve efficiency of energy production and utilisation. Careful planning can produce a diverse but still economical and reliable energy source

talking drums 1984-04-02 guinea sekou toure passes away - ghana the giwa executions