Wednesday, February 15, 2012

A Light in the Dark: Powering Tanzania through Renewable Energy

By Katie Donaldson
Copy edited and produced by Hilary Johnson

Many people take electricity for granted, thinking simple tasks like cooking on a stove or turning on a light are standard around the world. While this is possible for many living in prosperous nations, it is only a dream for countless others. In many developing countries, basic infrastructure is slow to progress, while the needs of citizens continue to grow.
Tanzania’s government works through government agencies, non-profits and local companies to remedy this problem and provide power to the most remote areas. By utilizing renewable energy, some Tanzanians are seeing the light for the first time in their lives.

Tanzania is at a stage where little of the country has access to power, and areas that do experience frequent outages. According to the Rural Energy Agency (REA), ninety percent of Tanzanians are without wired electricity. Only two percent of rural areas are able to receive power. There are more than 17,000 schools without electricity.
Carbon X CEO receiving the Lighting Rural Tanzania, organized by REA, award
for 2012. (Photo Courtesy of Carbon X Energy). 

Without power, these institutions cannot provide quality education, leaving students unable to utilize computers or the Internet. Even those parts of the country with access to power deal with daily hurdles to maintain a steady electrical flow. The major cities and business centers suffer from frequent power losses. Many businesses and homes resort to petrol and diesel generators to make up for the blackouts. These generators not only cost a lot to maintain, according to the Tanzania Renewable Energy Association (TAREA), they also emit harmful gases into the atmosphere and contaminate ground water. These generators are blamed for poor living conditions and are simply not reliable. These problems are well known within the country and several organizations have stepped up to find a solution.

Improving rural Tanzania
The REA started in 2005 as a government body overseen by the Ministry of Energy and Minerals. Their main goal is to promote and facilitate improved access to energy in rural Tanzania. REA representative Luntengano Mwakadsya said they accomplish this goal by providing grants, training, and supporting projects that take modern services to the most remote areas. They support any source of renewable energy – specifically highlighting those utilizing wind, hydro or solar power. Mwakadsya said they most commonly deal with solar power: “People live very far from the grid. They are scattered and sometimes solar is their only option.” While the REA promotes any type of renewable energy, they want the citizens of Tanzania to move to more efficient power sources like solar panels. Mwakadsya said, “We want to provide people with technology since there is a high demand. We want to open the door for renewable energy in this country.” This push for renewable energy has slowly grown bigger than a government initiative and evolved into a cause for many citizens.

Professor J.H.Y. Katima is the Principal of the College of Engineering and Technology at the University of Dar es Salaam. He is a strong advocate for renewable energy, having seen the effect of solar power back-up generators at his home and office. Katima said the generators are a huge money saver and can power his office’s ten computers for eight hours nonstop. When asked about the importance of solar energy, Katima said, “This is a very important cause. These panels help since the electric system is not yet stable in the country.” Katima also said the push for renewable energy needs to be followed by an extensive education campaign, promoting the benefits of the technology and making people aware of the possibilities. While many in the cities recognize that solar energy can save money, Katima wants the rural population to understand the benefits as well. This sentiment is widely felt and sparked the creation of companies selling and installing renewable energy systems.

New possibilities with solar technology
Rex Investment Limited is a solar energy contractor that works with private and public institutions. Rex Investment representative, Joshua Chikowbro, said the distribution rate of electricity just doesn’t exist, which led to the creation of companies like Rex Investment. They mainly deal in solar technology, installing small systems for the home or generators suitable for large businesses. Chikowbro said the generators run from $1,000 to $15,000 USD – meaning it can be a large investment, but one that will pay off. Unlike diesel and petrol generators, the one time commitment cost is the only payment needed for solar power. Chikowbro said their work, combined with non-profits, is making a real difference in the area.

One of the foremost organizations in this fight for electrical power is the Tanzania Renewable Energy Association. They manage several projects and provide education on the technology to rural areas and big city businesses. One of their most effective and internationally recognized programs is the Generator Zero project. TAREA analyzed the energy usage of Dar es Salaam’s business district and chose three shops to provide solar back up generators. This project has reported great results and caught the attention of the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Sonnenenergie e.V. (DGS), a non-profit solar organization based in Germany. The DGS offered their accolades by awarding TAREA a 2011 Energy for Life Best Practice Award.

DGS representative Antje Klauss-Vorreiter said they were impressed with TAREA’s project since it was so easy to replicate and had such high relevance in today’s struggle for accessible renewable energy. Klauss-Vorreiter said, “I really liked how they started their project by talking to people, by going after the demand of the citizens.” She said the only way they could improve the project would be to install more of the generators, creating more clean energy and less environmental damage. TAREA will travel to Madrid in March to receive their award and be recognized among other developing nations that want renewable energy to become the standard.

Only fifteen percent of Tanzania’s land has access to electricity, meaning ideas like renewable energy are more important than ever. All of these organizations work endlessly to implement new technologies and spread the world to every citizen. It’s very easy to forget just how drastically one life can change by harnessing the power of nature.

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