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Telecoms could solve Africa’s power woes

Africa is plagued by unreliable, intermittent and often non-existent access to electricity, especially in rural areas.

This is a huge inconvenience and a big obstacle to economic development. Can mobile phone operators be the unlikely saviours, bringing power to rural Africa?

Lack of power, inhospitable terrain, electricity theft, shoddy and neglected infrastructure, mismanaged power companies, ‘dirty’ thermal stations, expensive power and frequent power cuts; the list of Africa’s power problems is long. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), the overall electrification rate in Africa is less than 42%. In rural Sub-Saharan Africa, it is a shocking 14%.

To quote the IEA: “Energy alone is not sufficient for creating the conditions for economic growth, but it is certainly necessary. It is impossible to operate a factory, run a shop, grow crops or deliver goods to consumers without using some form of energy…”

Government-run electrification projects are painstakingly slow, for a variety of reasons. Some countries are actually moving backwards. In South Africa, as an example, Eskom lacks capacity and has been forced to introduce “load-shedding” (a nicer word for planned blackouts). However, there are some very promising new developments in power production coming from an unlikely source: the mobile phone operators.

Mobile operators are used to operating in rural Africa. They have base stations off-grid that need a lot of power, which has so far been provided by diesel-fueled generators. However, this is a very expensive (and dirty) way to power base stations. So, mobile operators have started introducing ‘green’ power solutions for base stations, based on renewable energy sources such as the sun and wind.

One clear indication that these solutions are taking off, is the recent announcement from Airtel in Nigeria that it will upgrade an initial batch of 250 diesel powered base stations in Nigeria with E-site, a ‘green’ energy solution from Sweden’s Flexenclosure.

Taking the E-site solution as an example, it has proven to be able to power base stations by more than 90%, using renewable energy sources, over an entire year and considering all weather factors. Over long periods, there is actually more green power produced than is needed to power the base stations.

So, power management companies, network suppliers and mobile operators are now contemplating what to do with the excess power produced, and whether more power can be generated for a small additional cost. The most obvious answer is to share it with the surrounding local communities. From governments, there should also be considerable interest in alternative ways of providing power for rural areas.

It would be cheaper to sponsor additional infrastructure, e.g. solar panels, at a telecom site for community applications like street lights and water pumps, than to expand the grid to remote locations. At the longest running test site, in Dertu in Kenya, the excess power produced by E-site has for two years powered a cold-storage room for vaccines and other medicines that to date has helped more than 5,000 people in the area with snake anti-venom and vaccines for newborn babies.

A new initiative by Flexenclosure and Ericsson, the world’s largest mobile telecommunications equipment vendor, is called ‘Community Power.’ This system provides the possibility to share the power produced by E-site with the surrounding local communities to power, say mobile and battery chargers, street lights, clinics, etc ? in effect turning the site solution into a power station as well.

The community power solution in itself strengthens the business case for off-grid deployments for mobile operators. The handset charging dock eliminates the villagers’ need to walk for hours in order to charge their handsets, while on the other hand, the operator benefits due to higher utilisation of the network which increases revenues.

Extending mobile communications and power to remote areas in developing countries will have a profound impact on the communities, giving them the means to get information, communicate with their families, start and run businesses, and get access to banking services.

The blistering African sun and the strong desert and savannah winds are free. Africa is on the threshold to finally be able to harvest these clean and constantly renewable energy sources, not only for communications but also to bring power to its people.

The author is a intelligent telecom solutions expert based in South Africa.


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