[ I had lunch a few weeks back with Donald Cassell, who works on the Africa program at the Sagamore Institute. He’s Liberian and his focus is Liberia. He sent me some very interesting material on the country, including this piece on an alternative energy project there written by his colleague Andrew Falk. Please look at the original version for footnotes – Aaron. ]
President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf recently wrote an article in Foreign Policy in which she lamented that Liberia’s twenty-three year civil war left the country’s energy infrastructure “in shambles.” She observed that of Liberia’s 4.1 million citizens, only about one percent of urbanites – and almost no one living in rural settings has access to electricity.
President Sirleaf is not making up excuses when she cites the impact of the country’s civil war: in 1980, when the war began, Liberia was producing 852 million kilowatts of electricity, and using 792 million kilowatts. By 1991, production and consumption had fallen by about sixty-eight percent to 273 million kilowatts and 253 million kilowatts, respectively. By 2010, the most recent year for which data is available, production and consumption had only risen to 335 million kilowatts and 311 million kilowatts, respectively.
A startling analogy employed by President Sirleaf in the same article puts Liberia’s electrical woes into perspective: AT&T Stadium, the home of the Dallas Cowboys, uses more electricity than the total installed capacity of Liberia. While this analogy could be misleading as the Wall Street Journal noted, AT&T Stadium only consumes that amount of power for several hours a day on eight regular-season NFL games it is staggering to consider that AT&T Stadium’s ten megawatt electrical usage is more than three times the amount that Liberia can put into its national grid.
President Barack Obama visited Africa during the summer of 2013 and announced a new initiative, Power Africa, which is designed to work with six African countries, including Liberia, to increase electrical production and provide electrical access to twenty million new households and businesses.
In contrast to the large-scale programs proposed by President Obama and being planned by multinational corporations, several individuals and small organizations are already on the ground making a difference in Liberia. One such organization is the Liberian Energy Network (LEN), a nonprofit organization started by Richard Fahey, a retired environmental attorney from the United States. LEN imported two hundred solar lights in May 2013, and two more shipments are anticipated before the end of the year. LEN sells the lights through retail shops in Monrovia and through partner organizations such as Ganta Methodist Mission Hospital, Advanced Youth Project, and the Christ Network for Good. It charges only enough to cover its costs of manufacturing, shipment, and operating expenses. Several types of lights are available, from a small reading light to a much larger unit capable of lighting a hospital ward. A third model also has the ability to charge a cell phone.
Meanwhile, a Liberian construction company is seeking to address the country’s electrical shortage by building sustainable, off-the-grid homes. MenKaR Construction Company is in discussions with John Waters and Donald Cassell, Sagamore Institute Senior Fellows, to design and build housing units powered by lithium batteries that are recharged by solar power. The proposed units will be close to the University of Liberia in one of Monrovia’s suburbs.
Waters is an expert in alternative energy with a long history in battery design and development. He was one of the General Motors engineers who helped develop the EV1, one of the earliest successful electric vehicles. Since then, Waters has worked on battery research for Delphi, Segway, and Bright Automotive.
Waters has developed a battery that he calls a Universal Battery Module (UBM). The UBM has a ten-year life in the worst-case scenario where it would be completely drained of power every day, 300 days a year, and completely recharged. The battery is designed to provide 3,000 one hundred percent discharge cycles. If, for example, the battery were only drained halfway every day, its life could extend to twenty years.
The UBM can be used to power lights and cooking appliances in the home; to run water pumps for drinking, bathing, and washing; and to recharge cell phones. The UBMs are also designed to be compact and light enough that they may be removed from the home to power electric scooters, motorcycles, four-wheel devices, and small tractors. For example, one application in the active planning stages is powering motorized water carts in Nigeria, where Waters is working with an international company to provide battery-powered carts to replace those presently pushed by eighteen to twenty-two year old young men.
Waters has also integrated his UBMs into a design for off-the grid homes. In designing a concept called Light Village, Waters envisions an off-grid family using ten compact florescent lights (CFLs) in their house (to replace kerosene or candles). Each CFL requires ten watts for ten hours, which is one kilowatt hour (kWh) for 10 lights used on a daily basis, and throughout the week. The family may use five hundred watts for cooking for three hours a day (for three meals) for a cumulative total of 1.5 kWh. The same family could use five hundred watts for an hour to pump water (0.5 kWh). And they move one battery to their scooter, which they ride for at least twenty-five miles for transportation to work or the market, which would use another 2 kWh. All together, the family has used 5 kWh.
To meet this need, the family mounts a 1 kW solar panel on the roof of their home. With six hours of sun, they generate 6 kWh, which they can store in three 2kW batteries. The 6 kWh is more than the 5 kWh the family needs daily, but it could be either shared, saved, or used for other electrical needs. The solar energy used to meet the family’s needs is abundant, “free,” quiet, and produces no emissions.
One of the unique aspects of Waters’ model is the mobility of the battery. The battery’s mobility makes it possible to also have a battery station in the village where a station owner invests in solar panels. The residents of the village could come in every two days and swap batteries for a fee. This option would relieve most people from having to invest in and install solar panels for their homes. Expanding the model further, Waters is in discussions with large capital companies that would purchase the UBMs and lease electrons back to customers at lower cost than they spend daily on firewood, charcoal, kerosene, and candles.
In addition to the solar power and battery packs, Waters has worked with Architects and Sagamore Institute Senior Fellows, Scott Truex and Donald Cassell, to design the Light Village homes to collect rainwater on the roof, which is then used in the kitchen and in the toilet. The resulting brown water could be then flushed outside the house where it is filtered and could even provide natural fertilizer for the family’s micro garden. Waters hopes the western idea of complex, expensive, and centralized energy and sewage infrastructures will be a thing of the past.
While it will probably be many years before Liberia begins to generate and consume electricity at rates similar to cities in the West, thanks to organizations such as LEN and projects such as Waters’ Light Village, many Liberians could be enjoying the benefits of sustainable electricity much sooner.
Andrew Falk is a senior fellow with the Sagamore Institute. His research focuses primarily on environmental and energy issues.