Friday, August 7, 2015

Energy in Somaliland: A country of contrasts

One of the most interesting parts about living here is how full of surprises life can be. On the one hand it's clear that the country is developing, particularly in regards to infrastructure. Even in the capital city the roads are horrible and unorganized and once you leave Hargeisa in most places it's just off road dirt "roads" through the desert and mountains. There are villages scattered about but often it's just a vast expanse of scrubby landscape dotted with dry mountains. You'll see the occasional camel or herd of goats but not much else. However, I also have the fastest internet of any of the place I've been in Africa and it's cheap (more on this later). Maybe this is simply because everything costs less here but it's actually possible to have unlimited internet at home versus simply paying for data as you go. Although I'm here to provide electricity to the many, many people here who live without it, I also have the most reliable power of any place I've lived in Africa. It's a strange and often perplexing place of contrasts but one thing that is clear is the immense need and brand newness of everything in regards to business and policy.

I spent much of last year researching the diffusion of solar energy in Uganda (and to a lesser extent East Africa and Cameroon) and energy policy in sub-Saharan Africa. Here there is virtually no literature on the subject and virtually no energy policy. While energy policy in some of the other African countries I've visited is limited and often in my opinion more a formality than a targeted approach to addressing the massive energy shortages facing this continent, there is policy. Here with a brand new government fighting for investment and international recognition coupled with a severe shortage of technical expertise, there is literally nothing. The electricity grid (which seems to primarily reach only the two major cities for the most part) suffers from around 40% losses. For non-technical people reading this there are three parts to receiving electricity in your home. First generation at a power plant, transmission (where many of the losses occur), and finally distribution to your home. The last two parts are typical referred to as the grid. In most grids losses of 6% are normal and unavoidable. But here the losses are insanely high and probably a contributing factor to the crazy high electricity tariffs (the highest in the world at $1/kWh).

Even without a technical background a casual observer could see the problems in the electricity grid here just looking at the jumble of wires making up the "grid". As I've been doing market research the energy companies here don't seem to have much of a strategy either as tariffs are random. In some low income parts of the city the tariffs are fixed which means for some consumers they are consuming far more power than what they're paying for and for others they are under consuming. In a quick survey of small businesses just in my neighborhood, the tariffs are across the board. From fixed per month or day fee to $0.80/kWh, while most ordinary households are paying $1/kWh. It's a mess.

In East Africa, countries have come a long way in developing rural electrification plans, renewable energy policy and although it hasn't been fully successful its existence has attracted funding by the World Bank and other international organizations. The potential for wind and solar here is huge. Somaliland has some of the highest irradience values in the world and on the continent (for comparison solar irradiation values in the Netherlands vary from a low of less than 1 kWh/m2/day in winter to a high of 5 kWh/m2/day in the middle of summer). Somaliland the values range between 6 and 7. Besides solar it is constantly windy here and with the large expanse of desert large scale wind farms could be possible with some initial investment.
Map of insolation values in Africa.

Even with the potential, policy constructions like feed in tariffs are largely impossible here simply due to the massive grid losses. Yet the way I see it I don't see this changing in the near future because there is no investment and virtually no technical expertise. However, all these factors are why solar in rural areas is booming. Even in the most remote place people know about solar and are willing to pay for it. These are people who get most of their income from relatives abroad or in the city (this is where most of the flow of money in the country comes in) but they can and will pay for solar products. With no grid in the foreseeable future solar makes so much sense. During my thesis I tried to prove the economic impact of solar energy on small businesses which is very difficult to prove, but when I see how thrilled an entire village can be when first turning on the lights from our solar home systems, the economic impact seems irrelevant. For us in the west, it's hard to imagine life without light and this is the strongest argument for bringing solar light to rural areas.

Small business owner with one of our solar lanterns. Most of our clients are women.

Installing solar home systems in the village.

Small business owner.
Sometimes the potential but also problems facing this unrecognized country are overwhelming. It's a place that could be a model for a country with an energy system built entirely from renewables, but unfortunately moving this direction will require significantly more investment and expertise and that is severely lacking at the moment. I hope that Somaliland moves towards renewables and not the seemingly easy route of just building more diesel power plants. 

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