MONROVIA, March 3, 2011 -- After sundown, the Liberian countryside falls into darkness. Where there were once working power plants, only the shells of structures remain. Now, a government project supported by the World Bank aims to restore some of these plants as a demonstration of how to sustainably bring electricity back to rural Liberia.
One of these plants is in the village of Yandohun in Lofa County near the border with Sierra Leone. On her third visit to the village, Kristin Stroup, an energy analyst in the World Bank’s Africa Energy Department, traveled with a local team of experts to review the now defunct 35-kilowatt micro-hydropower plant that was destroyed during the civil war. Their goal was to establish if the plant could be rehabilitated to help the community generate power for themselves and build economic opportunities for their children.
In the past, when the hydro installation was operational, the town had electricity, along with a dry goods store that remained open at night, a motor garage, a tailoring shop and a rice mill, an equipped 24-hour health clinic, and a school offering nighttime adult education, all of them benefiting from the power. Now, though there are carpenters, a blacksmith, and a tailor, none of them own a proper store.
Liberia’s energy infrastructure after the war
Since 2004, Liberia has been in a transition phase, rebuilding slowly from a series of violent civil wars, which, among other things, ripped up most of the nation’s existing energy infrastructure. Prior to the war, this infrastructure consisted mainly of the Monrovia grid, which at 180 megawatt (MW) accounted for 98 percent of all power; it included three radial lines into neighboring counties. In addition, 11 mini-grids (13 MW total) supplied other county capitals.
The World Bank is one of several international partners working with the Liberian government and the national energy utility to restore the electricity supply with an emphasis on rural electrification that will help balance development beyond the capital of Monrovia.
Less than 0.6 percent of urban and almost no rural residents have access to publicly provided electricity. The remainder of the population depends on unreliable and inefficient sources of energy such as small gasoline and diesel generators, firewood, charcoal, candles, kerosene, battery-powered LED torches and lamps, and palm oil.
Rural renewable energy and micro hydro
Supporting recovery and reconstruction in local communities, both urban -- such as the county capitals -- and rural, like Yandohun, is critical to Liberia’s resurgence and is a World Bank priority.
In January 2010, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf by Executive Order established Liberia’s Rural and Renewable Energy Agency (RREA) and a Rural Energy Fund (REFUND) to bring modern energy services to Liberia’s rural areas. The establishment and capacity building of the RREA is being supported by the World Bank through the Africa Renewable Energy Access (AFREA) program Catalyzing New Renewable Energy in Rural Liberia and with Bank’s Liberia Electricity System Enhancement Project (LESEP).
“This post-conflict environment offers a blank slate on which to build and opens up an opportunity for Liberia to lead rural renewable energy development in West Africa,” said Augustus Goanue, head of the Rural and Renewable Energy Agency in Liberia. “Not only will micro-hydro get a push, but also the proposed kerosene lantern exchange program for 2011 would light one million lives with low-cost, high-quality solar light, reducing CO2 from kerosene pollutants, improving air quality and people’s health dramatically.”
The World Bank made several dedicated consultative visits to rural areas in Liberia during 2010. In Yandohun, where the average age of residents is just 23, the chance to modernize their way of living and light their schools was a priority.
Bringing light back to the community would help bring teachers to restore the ninth grade and keep these students in the community, the school principal told the World Bank and RREA. Currently, students can only study up to sixth grade in Yandohun and those who want to continue school must travel long distances.
Most households are engaged in farming, either in cash crops like rice, coffee, cocoa, and palm oil, making energy for milling very important. Currently, only one household owns a rice mill. Other residents bring their rice and pay the owner to use the mill, which consumes about one gallon of diesel fuel every four hours. With a stable electricity supply, more people could benefit by milling their own rice at a much lower cost, and sustaining their families on the income generated.
Pilot projects encourage building commercial market
The project in Yandohun is one of two pilot projects in village electrification that will test the new government agency’s capacity. The second in Bong County involves setting up solar power systems in schools, health facilities, administrative buildings, and police posts. The government made a commitment to support the costs of operation and maintenance, which provides a base for business to build up local solar companies. The company contracted for supply and installation must also sign on for a 5-year maintenance contract.
These companies are also encouraged by an incentive scheme to offer solar lanterns and home systems for private sales in order to slowly build up a commercial market. Together, these efforts are expected to kick-start a self-sustaining market for solar products and will support the introduction of high-quality, low-cost technology in areas where the market is currently flooded by low-quality and inefficient lighting options.
In Gbarnga town in Bong County, a poorly run and very limited municipal grid charges a flat rate of $50 monthly for only two to three hours of power a night.
“People talk about development but not responsibility,” said a local business leader. “The World Bank won’t come and put hydro or solar in Gbarnga if the people aren’t willing to buy it, use it. What made [the utility] fail here is people didn’t want to pay for use of the current. We should use electricity and use it wisely.”
For Kristin Stroup, this enthusiasm from the people she met is encouraging. In an environment where the government is over-stretched with rebuilding and the interior of the country is anxious for progress, these projects will empower communities to take ownership of the solutions.
“People in Liberia have asked us for access to modern energy solutions that are affordable, durable, and available,” Stroup said. “We’re working with the government to see if we can help make that happen in the near term. Liberia’s potential isn’t under any doubt, it’s now a question of capitalizing on that potential, that is what the Rural and Renewable Energy Agency is poised to do.”