Jeff Lahl, Solar Electric Light Fund
Wednesday, 4 Jun 2003
We’ve finally done it — gotten our photovoltaic equipment out of customs! At the same time, we’ve about finished our pre-installation construction and gathering of local materials, so we will now be able to start our PV installations in the village of Wawan-Rafi within a day or so.
Its been a long four-and-a-half weeks in Nigeria getting to this point — grinding through extreme heat, stunningly inefficient bureaucracy, and days of waiting and frustration in a squalid, polluted city. Unfortunately, this is part of the reality of working on solar electrification projects in developing countries. It’s great work, but it always challenges me and takes me to the limits of my patience and endurance.
This project actually started over two years ago, with conversations between SELF Director Robert Freling and Governor Turaki of Nigeria’s Jigawa State, who met at a technology conference. Funding from the U.S. side (about 60 percent of total) comes from the United States Agency for International Development and the United States Department of Energy. The funding on the Nigerian side came from the Jigawa State government through our partner organization, the Jigawa Alternative Energy Fund, a nonprofit formed to further solar and other local sources of energy.
A project that could have taken a few months to put together in the U.S. has taken over a year and a half due to delays in funding on the Nigerian side and the realities of working with and in a country where almost nothing works very well. For example, on a previous trip, it took me an entire day to send an email from a state government office. Either the power would go off, causing the computers to crash, or the phone grid would go down. You gotta be lucky to catch them both working at the same time. Because of this lack of reliable infrastructure, communications with our partners has been shaky at best, with frequent gaps between our communications — gaps that could last for weeks.
Nigeria’s electric grid is notoriously bad, with daily outages that impede development of all kinds within the country. I was able to witness an example of this firsthand, as my JAEF counterpart took his four-year-old son to a new teaching hospital affiliated with a university in Kano. Young Mohammed has trouble with his blood not clotting and needs transfusions every few months. His father had rounded up four friends as potential donors and the next step was to take blood from each for typing. While this was going on, Mohammed was bleeding, and would continue to bleed until he received a blood donation. But the national electric grid was down, and although the hospital had a huge new backup generator, there was no fuel to run it, so electricity was not available to do the blood-typing. Fortunately, Mohammed’s bleeding was slight and the hospital was able to do the procedure before he was in serious danger.
Because of this unreliability, just about all major businesses and hotels have backup generators that are used daily. Although the environment is usually given as the reason for using renewable energy, the dependability of renewable-based distributed generation systems is another good reason to use renewables in developing countries. One of the great things about bringing solar electricity to these villages is that we will be bringing a source of energy more dependable than the national utility grid!
In spite of all the challenges, I’m happy to be doing this work. After having worked in solar architecture for a number of years, I got involved with photovoltaics as a Peace Corps volunteer in 1993. During my two-year tour in the South Pacific, I was in charge of renewable-energy projects for the Kingdom of Tonga’s Energy Planning Office. Although we did some work with other renewables, our main thrust was the solar electrification of small outer islands. The government wisely chose to bring renewable energy to these islands as opposed to diesel generators with their noise, pollution, expensive upkeep, and the risk fuel spills pose to the fragile reef ecosystems that are the basis of life for island people.
After the Peace Corps, I broadened my knowledge of photovoltaics by working in the industry, designing and selling PV systems. I then went on to be director of a nonprofit that provided education on renewable energy issues. Throughout those years, though, I never forgot the experience of being on a small island village when the solar lights were all turned on for the first time. It was then that I fully realized what a magical, life-changing thing electricity can be for people who have never had it — how it opens up opportunities for better education, health, communications, commerce, and other aspects of development.
Since those days in the islands, I have been looking for a way to do similar work and was thrilled to find my chance a couple of years ago with Robert Freling and SELF. SELF has worked in many places around the globe and is currently setting up several new projects. In fact, to make a plug here, check out the SELF website to learn about our activities and to find out how you can win a trip to Bhutan in a raffle that supports a SELF project in that country.