When I was exposed to Sub-Saharan Africa for the first time in 1996, one of the real big problems of the time was keeping in touch with loved ones back in Europe. Telephones were rare and when they existed, lines did not always work and even if they worked, it cost an arm and a leg to make a call. Africa was the Dark Continent in many respects, a dark hole of little communication.
How the mobile phone has changed everything. Now I can call a business partner or a friend in Congo or Nigeria through Skype or Viber. It’s free and it works on his mobile phone so he is really reachable most of the time. Calling to and from Africa became cheap and easy and the one device that brought this revolution to us was the meteoric rise of the mobile phone network.
Before mobile phones became cheap, reliable and ubiquitous, one had to lay long lines of cable. This was expensive to do and to maintain. Endpoints of this network (actual phones) were rare in Africa as in every case someone had to be physically hooked up. Building those systems in the emerged economies was a colossal task but as there was no alternative, we had to bite the bullet.
Africa could not afford it and leapt into the mobile phone age without the baggage from the non-mobile world. They basically just skipped the whole fixed line thing.
But what a leap it was. Because of the absence of the old, direct line solution everyone embraced mobiles in virtually no time. When I came back to Africa in 2008, there were phones just about anywhere. Roaming charges were still an outrage but that’s no African specialty. But I got a SIM card and that was it. As everyone had a mobile phone it was easy to keep in touch, connect back home and stay on top of things.
A whole continent that has been the very definition of the communicational wild in the past has been thrown onto the map with the flick of the mobile network switch.
Is it about to happen again?
When it comes to electricity generation, Africa is a place of millions of generators. There are power plants but they are too few, too little and the distribution network is a shambles in most cases. Plus there are so many outages that even if you have grid access, you still need a backyard generator as the only thing that you get every day is a Blackout – and reliably so.
This means that to this day, everyone lives on a diet of some power off the grid and a backyard generator running on diesel.
Just like in telecommunication about 20 years ago, the emerged economies has developed large scale power plants and extremely tightly meshed distribution grids. It was a colossal investment made over decades but the world rightly figured that without stable energy supply, no solid economic development was possible. And there was no other economic solution than producing power centrally and transporting it through long cables over long distance.
Now however, something new emerges. For the first time, small scale power production has reached technological efficiencies that makes it easier, cheaper and more flexible to produce power very close to the consumer. Electricity has one drawback to many other forms of energy. It’s very hard to store so balancing the imbalances real world life produces was only possible in a huge grid with many intake and output points.
Just in time production of electricity at the location of the consumer makes this enormous integrated system obsolete. Distributed generation, often called co-generation makes strong strides in the emerged economies.
In Africa, with its myriads of gensets and its notoriously fickle power supply, it could cause a landslide as there is very little in terms of large scale systems to be taken care of or to be considered against the investment proposal of a co-gen plant. In Africa, it’s all or nothing just like the situation was before mobile phones started to mushroom.
The problem today is not the multitude of power generators. The problem is that those in operation are most often stone old, super inefficient, loud stinky diesel beasts. And there is little or no coordination when it comes to their placement.
But they can be replaced piece by piece when the oldest wear down and to make them really clean, efficient and comfortable to deal with it would be better to put them on gaseous fuel. And here is another problem.
Diesel or gasoline can be put into a jar or a tank and it simply sits there until you need it. That’s simple. Gas is bulky and would take up a lot of volume in order to deliver the same energy. In order to reduce the volume requirements you can either compress it or you cool it down until it drops liquid.
This happens at various different subzero temperatures depending on what gaseous hydrocarbon one goes for. But for methane, the best choice by any measure, this is a chilly minus 161 degrees Celsius.
That would be LNG then and this was considered to be a fuel for emerged economies only as the supply chain is complex. So far but things change. This however, is a different story.