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Africa Becomes Electric


It?s not easy to catch Sten Bergman. Between Washington, D.C., which he currently calls home, and Africa, where he spends most of his time, the rural energy expert flies some 300,000 km a year. And that?s not counting the dusty distances he traverses to reach his final destination: the tiny remote villages he?d like to see supplied with low-cost and efficient power.

As the Swedish Development Agency?s representative to the World Bank?s Africa Rural and Renewable Energy Initiative, Bergman is charged with helping set "a new template for rural electrification in Africa." That means scouting out low-cost energy technologies to match local needs, as well as explaining those technologies to government ministries, local leaders, utilities, "and the man in the street," Bergman says. And that in turn means lots of time on the road.

Fortunately, Bergman has always been a travel buff. It?s that wanderlust, in fact, combined with a strong urge to do good, that got him into this work in the first place.

Traditional power roots

For much of his career, Bergman had enjoyed a fairly typical career for a power engineer. Born in Västeras, Sweden, he received his master?s degree in electrical engineering from Chalmers Institute of Technology in Göteburg in 1972 and then went to work for Asea Atom--"the Swedish Westinghouse," as he calls it.

As the commissioning engineer for nuclear control systems, he oversaw the start-up of the country?s second and third nuclear power plants, based on a new Swedish design. (One of the reactors, Barsebäck 1, has been shut down as part of Sweden?s phaseout of nuclear power, but decommissioning of the remaining 12 has stalled because no cost-effective substitutes have been found.)

From Asea Atom, he moved to Sydkraft, the southern Swedish power company. There he began working with wind power, commissioning the biggest Swedish windmill in 1980. Called Maglarp, the prototype 3-MW machine had 37-meter-long blades. Bergman next worked for ABB Relays, where he designed relay systems to protect electrical lines against power failures. "All generator stations, transformer stations, power lines, and switch yards have protection systems, which until then were based on mechanical relays," he explains. As manager of speculative R&D, he helped usher in the next generation of microprocessor-based relays.

An awakening

In 1988, the ABB job took Bergman to Japan, whose culture and technology he found fascinating. When a position as science and technology attaché at the Swedish Embassy in Tokyo opened up the next year, he took it, and spent the next four years introducing Japanese technologies to visiting Swedish business executives. During his spare time, he explored the rest of Asia, including Malaysia, the Philippines, and Thailand. Bergman was eager to "meet the people, taste the food, see the high and the low technology, understand the history and the culture."

It was in the Philippines that Bergman first came face to face with terrible poverty. "I saw people living in hutches that would blow down in a high wind," he recalls. He started thinking about how to apply his expertise to help those at the bottom of the economic ladder.

In 1993, through a Vienna-based organization called SOS Children?s Villages, Bergman began sponsoring an orphaned 10-year-old Tibetan boy in southern India. He later went to meet the boy, which led him to start a campaign to buy computers for the boy?s school. Inspired, he then initiated a school-building project in another SOS village called Umtata, in South Africa?s Eastern Cape province.

Africa intrigued Bergman with its abundance of resources and undeveloped potential. "I decided that if an opportunity for a job in Africa came up, I would take it," he says. Just a few weeks later, he spotted an ad in a Swedish newspaper: "I applied that day."

A new model

Hired in 1999 by the World Bank, he is nearing the end of a three-year stint as a senior energy specialist on technology matters for the bank?s Africa Rural and Renewable Energy Initiative. The initiative?s philosophy is a radical departure from traditional development approaches. Rather than pursuing the centralized power systems favored by big utilities and international lending agencies, the initiative encourages the private sector to develop small independent grids in remote regions.

The continent has a crying need for power. In the rural areas of Uganda, for example, only 1 percent of households have electricity, and even in one of the biggest cities, Arua, 40 000 people have no access to the grid. Instead, residents run their shops and grain mills off small diesel generators, spending between 50 cents and a dollar per kilowatt-hour (compared to around 5 cents in the United States). "The poorest people, who can only afford kerosene for lighting their homes and charcoal for cooking, spend 30 percent of their income on energy," Bergman observes.

Bergman acts as a scout, researching energy technologies and considering which ones match up with local generation sources and network structures. The continent offers many alternative-energy options, such as hydro, wind, biomass, and solar. "Many places have sun almost eight hours a day, 358 days a year, so small solar systems work quite nicely," he notes.

"I like assessing all the variables--political, logistical, and economic--and then trying to figure out a program and corresponding technology that works across all the layers," Bergman says. For Arua, he determined that its eight small rivers were ideal for run-of-river systems, in which water flows through turbines. The plan is to begin with two rivers, generating up to 5 MW of electricity, and to develop all eight waterways as load increases. International firms bidding on the project will include local participation and investment.

Less is more

It?s not hard to persuade the residents to accept these small-scale projects--umeme in Swahili--but the utilities are another matter. For years, African power companies solicited huge donations to build sophisticated networks that could handle the high loads predicted 30 years down the road. Often the designs simply mirrored Western technology. "Transmission lines in Burkina Faso were built according to French specifications, to withstand ice loads!" Bergman scoffs.

"Instead of these gold-plated standards, we say, ?Just look 10 years ahead and see what the people can afford,?" he explains. The developed world, for example, uses three-phase power lines, which cost up to US $40 000/km to install and are sized for megawatts rather than kilowatts. African utilities were using the same technology until Bergman learned that at the dawn of electrification in the United States, midwestern farmhouses were typically connected through a single-phase line. "When you take a single-phase aluminum line overhead and use the earth as return conductor, you can save up to 90 percent of the cost," he observes. In other words, electricity becomes affordable to everyone. Upgrading to three-phase lines could occur as demand increases.

Not just juice

Bergman and his colleagues are also working on the improvements to water, health, and communications infrastructures that electricity affords. Cellphones, for example, have proved a boon for fishermen on Lake Victoria. "When their catch is in, they call all three landing stations and dock at the one offering the best price," says Bergman. He is also working with schools and teacher training programs to install Internet and telephone service--even telemedicine, if possible--over satellite and radio networks.

"The whole concept behind this African initiative is to channel electrical resources into activities that have an economic return," Bergman explains. To that end, he and his colleagues are helping people obtain better sewing machines and welding equipment, teaching them how to use these tools, and creating the channels to micro-credit institutions. Handing out light bulbs is all well and good, he notes, "but it doesn?t generate money."

Power broker

In the course of his work, Bergman comes across many small innovative energy companies. Sustainable Control Systems (Nottingham, England), for example, makes a device called a PowerProvider that Bergman is considering for use in Tanzania and Uganda. It?s a cheap alternative to a house?s electric meter. "It disconnects if the consumer uses more than the allocated amount his flat rate pays for, and then reconnects as soon as the user has switched off the excess load," Bergman says. It also prevents energy theft.

A free agent once his term with the World Bank ends next month, Bergman expects to continue in this broker capacity. "I?ll probably start my own company, continuing to bridge the gap to developing countries and access to appropriate technology," he says. Opportunities abound--the World Bank estimates that some two billion people worldwide still lack access to electricity. Says Bergman, "These technologies hold out real hope globally, because by lowering the cost significantly, more people can get access to electricity within their lifetime."