According to the International Energy
Agency, approximately 1.3 billion people
worldwide lack access to electricity. Almost
half of them live in small, remote communities spread across sub-Saharan Africa, which
is home to nearly one billion people. And in
spite of surging economic growth in many
African countries, the number of people
not connected to modern energy services
is rising, because infrastructure expansion
is unable to keep pace with urban growth.
Indeed, with the high costs and slow growth
of energy services, the percentage of Africa’s
“connected” population—both urban and
rural—has changed little in the past 40 years.
That is almost how long Carl Bielenberg has
been looking for ways to create affordable
power in Africa. In the 1980s, the mechanical
engineer was exploring how to use vegetable
oils as lower-cost substitutes for diesel fuel,
which powered most rural machinery at the
time. None of the technologies he was developing proved as cost effective as he hoped, so
he went back to the drawing board. Way back.
“I started asking why we are turning
our backs on steam,” Bielenberg reflects.
“Steam was the power source that fueled the
Industrial Revolution. Why shouldn't we be
using that in Africa?”
A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE STEAM ENGINE
Between the mid-18th and 19th centuries,
most factories, ships and trains were powered
by steam engines. The technology was simple:
a boiler—basically a tank or container with a
fire underneath—produced steam by heating
water. Building volumes of steam inside the
boiler created pressure that could be used to
propel movement and conduct work.
Until the end of the 19th century, steam
engines generated usable power by applying
pressure in the boiler against a piston, which
triggered a chain reaction when it began
moving. The movement would rotate a con-
nected shaft, which could be used to drive
mechanical equipment when attached to
the wheels of a locomotive or the propeller
of a ship, for example. Or it could produce
electricity by turning a generator. It was a
straightforward process, and steam engines
were extremely reliable and long-lasting
machines. In fact, it was not at all unusual
for a steam engine to work for up to 75 years
with infrequent maintenance.
The downside of steam engines was that
they were large, heavy and capital intensive.
Over time, as use of fossil fuels and internal
combustion engines became more widespread, steam engines became less competitive. So when Bielenberg decided to revert to
steam as a power source, he knew he had to
“It's not that they didn't know what they
needed to do in the 19th century to improve the
efficiency. They did a great deal over its roughly
hundred-year history of use,” Bielenberg says.
“But we’ve been able to take it a little bit fur-
ther with materials they didn’t have.”
In 2008, using modern materials and
enhanced thermodynamics, Bielenberg
came up with a small scale, biomass-fueled,
steam-powered plant, which transforms
wood and agricultural waste into useable
energy. He called both the prototype unit and
the venture he started to commercialize it
Village Industrial Power, or VIP for short.
Energy access in Africa
Harnessing biomass as a powerful and
efficient source of energy is a potential game
changer in poor, off-the-grid communities,
where natural matter fuels 75 to 80 percent
of total energy use, Bielenberg says. Part
of the reason the percentage is so high is
because a lot of biomass is burned in tradi-
tional open fires, which are an inefficient way
of providing heat.
Bielenberg argues that to alleviate energy
poverty, it makes sense to look at the fuels
people are already using to see how to use
them more efficiently and to produce modern
energy services. “If you can do that, you're
providing people an opportunity to advance
economically and increase their standard of
living without becoming dependent upon
expensive imported fuels. It's a very power-
ful paradigm,” he says.
The VIP certainly offers a hefty boost of
power to that paradigm change, as the “vil-
lage” part of its name suggests. The machine
is meant to provide energy for whole com-
munities or small commercial endeavors,
rather than individual households. Intended
uses for the VIP include powering agricultural
processing, community clinics and hospitals,
or microgrids. In fact, all of these applications
have been tested.
Geographically, the VIP’s target markets
include less-developed countries where the
technology could stand in for functions that
otherwise depend on costly fuel sources like
diesel, which costs about US$1 per liter in
most parts of Africa. Since the VIP is bio-
mass fueled, the technology is only useful in
regions where biomass sources are plentiful—
not deserts or regions with few trees or little
vegetation. The most ideal areas fall within
10 to 30 degrees of the Equator.
In Africa’s remote Sahel region—the strip
between the continent’s northern desert and
central forest stretching from Sudan to Senegal—
rural communities get by with few sources of
income and rudimentary infrastructure.
One look at a satellite image of the Earth at night reveals a lot about energy inequality in the world. Europe, the United States and the Middle East glow with bright lights. Japan is alight, and so are most of Southeast Asia, Southern Canada and the densely populated coastal regions of South America and Australia. But Africa—beyond
a blazing Johannesburg and few flickering urban hubs—is dark.
has changed little in the
last 40 years.