In Africa with Hemingway’s failed bullfighter generating hydroelectricity for the poor
It was a typical humid summer mid-morning lull of thinking. The fan above my back dried sweat that then cooled me enough to concentrate but too much noise and then the writing stalled. and I looked at the wall. One of those moods was on me, had gripped me earlier in the day, and normally I would shake it by that time, after a page had been created. Instead, the mood lingered and persisted. That bad mood first apparent sipping morning black Greek coffee after dawn. When I put the cup down and mindfully edited a bold sentence. The writing effort yesterday recalled. Always Africa, of course it will be Africa, the numbers were astonishing. Africa disturbing, and how did I get so stuck on Africa. What brought my mind to that dark and foreboding continent and everything I had read and heard of the place said only one thing, brough one conclusion to my quest to find a way out. Africa was the place where the fate of humanity would be decided. Electricity enabled growth and that growth would make or break us.
My mentor, Ernest Hemingway, said in an interview or article — I am sure he said it; one should always write bright and cheerful sentences and then, when I read an early chapter of Death in the Afternoon, what was this; why to mislead when I wish to learn. How that passage not fine nor cheerful. Words described well, as was his way, how a poorly prepared and incompetent bullfighter deserved nothing less than a ripped open thigh. The leg sliced by a sharp bull’s horn when the man, surely a coward, because of failure of technique, lost his footing and went to his knees and then was mauled in a one sided scrummage, with a bull. A man not fit to be in the ring taken to the infirmary and one was left to wonder did he live or die. The prose was strong, and you felt deeply for the poor bullfighter and when feeling his anguish had to question one’s own misguided ambition. Then I realized the glory of the words and they were bright and cheerful. The consolation of difficulties is apparent. The prose written carefully and designed, using the famed iceberg theory, to open that internal conversion of self-examination.
Like all good and powerful writing must be. Then when I returned to my work. That same intention gripped me and hoped I had what it took to get it right. Why people living there wished to electrify Africa obviously needs no explanation, regardless of how you look at the problem and fear the impact on the rest of us, no morality can deny them what we have. Be honest. The African’s misguided ambition to be like us must not be frustrated. That was what my biased spectator mind said. I had to say, they must, even though I hated doing so. Must act like the man brough to his knees and rise from a poor man’s bed and take a chance in the ring. However, I had no expectation they were up to it.
Confirmed was my instinctive apprehension when I read the IEA report. A feeling descended from somewhere and landed and turned into a mood. They are always unwelcomed, like buzzing fly avoiding swatters. Following links from an IEA email I found the report. Why are the six hundred million people who now live in Africa without electricity expecting that to be reversed by 2040? Many commentators say that continental Africa, abundant in renewable resources, must use only that for electricity. I say that may well end poverty, which is the extreme poverty of hunger and uncertainty that Gandhi found apparent when touring India. That intention is so good. In Africa Gandhi’s noble mission goes on. An Africa that was not in any way like India. Except for the abundance of poor. The last two decades have seen the number of people living in African cities increase by 90% and this trend continues over the next two decades. Money made in the city. By 2040, an additional 580 million Africans will be living in cities, an amount greater than the entire population of the European Union today, and a pace of urbanization that is unprecedented. That six hundred million without electricity will breed at an alarming rate the cost of dark nights without television.
How I felt then that morning, after spending the previous day writing in detail on the energy transition challenge in first world Europe, can and should be described honestly, because I did promise you the truth. How I understood this African challenge important, and the impact on the emissions effort obvious. One need not be a genius. Well, let me be honest, I expected nothing good. Nothing good at all. Humor me please and my melodramatic narrative, and my failure to be bright and optimistic. I tell you honestly, after reading the report and then contemplating the big numbers was changed, forever. That it made me feel like an innocent man in a cell on death row. That feeling the rope of the nose tighten. That anticipated fall. Death in the coming days. Ending when the trap door opened. Hoping, as one must, for Governor’s pardon.
There will however be no pardon, the world must suck it up and get on with this one. Africa does not have a reason to stop. Money miraculously appears when there are people about, ready to pay, that is the modern world. One does not need to ask who or where from comes money today, it freely follows people around. Money will come because of the growing population, surprisingly today, Africa now accounts for only an exceedingly small share of global energy sector investment. Why that will change for people with improved governance and sustained vision. In 2018, around $100 billion was invested in the energy sector in Africa, or about 5.5% of the global total. Of this, $70 billion was unfortunately misguided, investment in fossil fuels and that must change, only $13 billion in renewables. Another $13 billion was spent on electricity networks.
When Africa does electrify. In Africa, fortunately the number of people gaining access to electricity doubled from 9 million a year between 2000 and 2013 to 20 million people between 2014 and 2019, outpacing population growth. As a result, the number of people without access to electricity, which peaked at 610 million in 2013, declined progressively to around 580 million in 2019. Much of this recent dynamism comes from a small number of countries leading the progress, in particular Kenya, Senegal, Rwanda, Ghana, and Ethiopia. In Kenya, the access rate rose from 20% in 2013 to almost 85% in 2019. Most of the progress over the past decade in Africa has been made because of grid connections, but a rapid rise has been seen in the deployment of off-grid systems. Kenya, Tanzania, and Ethiopia accounted for around half of the 5 million people gaining access through new solar home systems in 2018 (up from only 2 million in 2016). These numbers from the IEA 2019 Africa Energy Outlook.
The stage is set. The gentlemen lined up. The gun is about to fire, and the race begins. A dynamism among African policy makers and business communities, with falling costs of key renewable technologies opening new avenues for innovation and growth. Chief among the challenges which cannot be understated, is providing universal access to reliable, modern, affordable, and sustainable energy. How to do this. To do this not by building emitting generators. That has commentators saying Africa will be the first fully renewable continent. That failure means a climate over the edge. That remains a crucial test and critical component of Africa’s Agenda, the 2063 strategic framework. However, the continent’s future relies on the world’s future. It may be in everyone’s interests to take more than a commercial interest in Africa. What if Belmonte, the greatest bullfighter of the 1930’s and a truly brave and skilled man, took aside our poor fellow and supported him with kind words and helped him in training. What then the latter contest in the ring? A glorious spectacle and then the expected kill, of the bull this time, not the man. The climate crisis demands more of us than hands off observation, instead responsible global Sustainable Development Goals obtained by helpful cooperation.
Now cooperation and vision abundant in Ethiopia. A man may want to share the gift of electricity with the poor for many reasons and increase supply fourfold. However, a man must act. When Ethiopia advisers explained to their leaders the power of the water flowing in the Blue Nile and how much electricity that meant for thousands of people, Grand Renaissance project was born. A hydro plant like no other, massive, and grand, began around ten years ago and now it generates electricity without emissions. Near the border with Sudan, just 40 km away, they built a 170m-high roller-compacted concrete (RCC) dam divided into three sections — right bank, central section, and left bank; two powerhouses; a gated spillway and a 16 million m³ concrete-face rockfill dam.
The central section of the dam forms a reservoir underlying an area of 1,680km² with a water volume capacity of sixty-three billion cubic meters (BCM). Three spillways control the water level of the reservoir. The right bank and left bank sections of the dam are higher than the central section to serve as spillways during floods.
There are two underground powerhouses situated on the river’s right and left banks downstream of the main dam where 16 Francis turbine units spin driven by the force of the water behind the dam wall forced downhill through pipes, each with a capacity of 375MW. The project will also include a concrete spillway with a capacity of 15000m³/s located on the left bank of the dam. A 500kV double bus-bar switchyard 1.4km downstream of the main dam transmits to the people the output of the hydroelectric plant. How many more men with such grand vision are needed, the scale and the vision breathtaking the rewards unparalleled.
The physics of generating electricity using water relies on the transformation of one form of energy into another, like all other forms of electricity generation. In this case, potential energy transformed into kinetic energy and then using Faradays law, electromagnetic induction, becomes electrical energy. When water that gravity pulled down from the dam spins many turbine blades. Then the spinning turbine works. That opposing force that it works against explained by Len’s law, the induced current always creates an opposing magnetic field and water pushes against the force of resistance inside the wound wires. Working hard in the magnetic field that opposes motion. Transforms the energy of motion into electrical energy the energy of light.
In a village in Ethiopia a girl lives and how wonderful now to contemplate the effect on her life. When the lights were turned on. Then for that little girl life was much better. She comes to the kitchen table bathed in light and able to study. No longer forgotten in a remote village. She lives near Holeta, in a shanty beside the Addis Ababa — Ejerie road. To read at night better. Light to study transforms her life. That is the forward motion of humanity in one spin of a hydro generator's blade. Hydro generation has a sound and that is the sound of flowing water and that says everything. Water flowing deep in a channel renews life. Flowing past a boulder white and bright in the midday sun. The modern story of electricity generation started with hydro just over a hundred years ago and it was the first success and never caused any emission problems. It remains viable today and there are many new projects. Hydroelectric generation provides hope for the poor and of course it must be generated sustainably to not rob future generations.