Why 90% of Liberia lives in the dark

For the past 15 years, I’ve never gone a day without using electricity, and I’m sure over a billion people would agree with me on this. Whether it’s charging a phone, turning on the lights, or even using a microwave to warm up frozen food — it’s obvious that we use electricity on a daily basis for almost everything.

In fact, you wouldn’t even be reading this article without it.

For most of you guys, you’re probably living a life in which you have access to electricity anywhere and anytime during the day. If you wanna read a book — flip the switch, and you can clearly read the words. If you’re craving food at 2am, just heat it up using the microwave. I’m loaded with much more examples, but I think you get the idea — our lives depend on a simple concept of electron movement called electricity.

Hundreds of years ago, we used to burn a piece of wood and use it as a source of light. Fast forward to 2022, we now have lamps, flashlights, and so much more. Technology has allowed to see things no matter if it’s day OR night.

However, what if I told you, that millions of people still burn a small wooden stick to actually see in the dark?

Over 940 million people (13% of the world) doesn’t have access to affordable and reliable electricity. This means, for millions of people, as soon as the sun sets, it would get dark.

Pitch black.

Nothing but darkness.

Africa accounts for 78% of that population, which is around 590 million people. Africa as a continent, has a number of barriers in which people don’t have electricity, which includes; high cost for electricity, corruption (government perspective) and consists of 597 million people without electricity. If we narrow if down to Liberia, 3.5 million people don’t have access to electricity and has an electrification rate of 9.8%. (that’s one of the lowest electrification rates in the world!)

But why is it actually important to have electricity? Why can’t we just light up some candles and call it a night?

Though electricity is an example of just one problem, it is a seed that extends to a number of other problems such as education and access to clean cooking fuels. In Africa, there was an increase of people without electricity by a factor of 3% (from 571 million — 597 million) due to COVID, which weighted down the progress to electrifying Africa.

Africa’s Progress for Electrification (2000–2020)

In Sub-Saharan Africa, over 90 million children go to a primary school that lacks access to electricity and there are still 3,544 schools with little to no power. Without electricity in schools, there is a higher possibility of students dropping out or leaving school since with no electricity barriers arise for education, and learning becomes much more difficult (especially if a student is trying to read in the dark).

Another crucial problem that arises from electrification is sustainable cooking fuels. 40% of the world’s population (almost 3 billion people), use unsustainable resources to cook fuel. By using unsustainable fuel, not only does it impact the environment, but also builds on to solving other problems such as indoor air pollution. Since a majority of women work within a household, they are most likely to be affected by air pollution, and over 1.2 million people have died in globally due to poor air quality.

Majority of the population without electricity reside in Africa, and of that population, 3.5 million people in Liberia live in a world full of darkness.

Liberia’s situation for electricity is devastating, and has limited a number of opportunity for growth as a country. The per capita consumption is around 55 kWh, and the country has one of the highest tariffs in the world which is $0.35/kWh. This is definitely a challenge since approximately, 83.7% of Liberia is living on less than $2 per day and only 8% of households are connected to the national grid.

Most people in Liberia spend 10% of expenditures on energy for light or cooking

Root-Cause Analysis for Electrification Problem in Liberia

The main problem is affordability and distribution.

The high price of electricity is mainly due to the reliance on expensive imported diesel fuel for electricity generation, and generators that run on diesel fuel produce electricity that cost around USD $3.96 / kWh. The cost of electricity consumption in Liberia compared to American rates, is much more higher since America tags a price of $1300, whereas Liberia has a price of $5000. 1 in 6 people in Liberia chose not to connect to the grid due to cost and brownouts.

  • At least 110 million of Africa’s 600 million people without electricity access live in urban areas, in close proximity to the grid — meaning they refuse to connect to the grid due to cost.
  • A grid connection in sub-Saharan Africa costs between $400 and $1,200
  • A grid connection in Liberia: $0.66 USD/kWh

Map of the Electrical Grid in Liberia

Due to the Liberian pricing of electricity, majority of the population isn’t able to afford it, resulting in inadequate power generation (highlighted in blue in the mind map above!). In short, by using unreliable sources of electricity, the price of electricity could sky rocket, which results in less people willing to invest for electricity.

On the other hand, distribution is a challenge for expansion of accessibility for electricity. Liberia population is a very distributed, and scattered over the geographic. Though the grid could be extended to areas in need of electricity, it is unsustainable and expensive to extend the grid for only a few number of people.

However, an a potential solution to providing electricity is by improving current community-based generators to produce reliable and affordable electricity. Diesel generators are one of the most common generators used.

  • 7.5% of rural households use solar lighting systems

But why diesel? why not other renewables like hydro?

Though hydro has a high potential for electricity generation in Liberia, and there are currently 2 hydro plants in Liberia — A plant can produce 88 megawatts of power and mainly provides electricity during dry season. However, renewables (including hydro) are unreliable and the amount of energy produced by each product can fluctuate since it depends on the weather and environment. This also results in an oscillating rate for electricity prices specifically generated by hydro.

hydro = unreliable source of electricity

Hydro was definitely a turning point for renewables in Liberia, however there is an opportunity for solar to be implemented in particular areas in Liberia. As for Africa as a continent, it could potentially produce 60,000,000 TWh / year, which is approximately 40% of total global production since it is the most sun-rich continent. However, there isn’t a guarantee that solar might turn its back on Liberians — meaning it isn’t a reliable source of electricity (solar radiation is unpredictable).

A variety of companies often sell products such as kits, to improve the quality of life for locals in Liberia. For instance, LIB solar is currently selling lamps and lighting equipment at an affordable rate — $8 USD per month and provides financial aid to support for certain individuals.

There is an opportunity for solar since it is economically viable and feasible specifically for a location like Liberia (since it is a country with the second highest solar radiation). Between 2020–2021, there was been a decrease by 12.3% for utility scale solar systems and between 2010–2020 there has been a decline of solar electricity by 90%.

However, the only challenge is reliability. The amount of radiation given to Liberia is unpredictable therefore prices for electricity may change based on the amount of energy produced by solar. If you compare electricity produced by diesel generators, then electricity is much cheaper and initial cost of a solar generator can be anywhere from 5 to 10 times higher than a diesel generator.

By attaching solar products to diesel generators (Hybrid PV/Diesel Generators), 76.04% of operation costs can be saved.

Benefits for Hybrid PV/Diesel Generators:

  • solar generators do not require much maintenance after their installation
  • 40.6% reduction in the operation cost as well as CO2 emission is achievable in the case of the proposed system without energy recovery

A comparison of operating expenses of hybrid systems compared with those for a diesel site

Through replacing current diesel systems with a hybrid system, it is possible to reduce the LCOE by 0.06–2.11 USD/kWh. (LCOE: Levelized Cost of Energy).

From the demand side, it was concluded that hybrid PV-diesel considering a 150 kW PV generator with a 62.5 kVA diesel generator and a 637 kWh battery storage achieved the lowest LCOE and led to a reduction in battery requirements of 70% compared to PV-battery systems. Hybrid PV-diesel mini grids were recommended in this country instead of the widely installed PV-battery systems.

The method of production for a hybrid model, is very similar to a diesel generator. The process begins with mounted photovoltaic modules to generate solar power and covert DC (direct current) to AC (alternating current) which involves utilizing an inverter which provides the micro-grid with solar power. Normally, there would be a PV system controller that would optimize for the flow of energy in a system and control the photovoltaic power in the most optimum method.

Throughout the process, there would be a diesel generator that would be the primary energy source for the system.

As the loads are supplied with a particular amount of energy, there are current sensors that measure the amount of power within the system and supplied to the loads.

One of the main concerns for leveraging solar in Liberia was the break-even point. Diesel generators with an output of 4000 to 9000 watts often range from $800-$5000, and capital costs for hybrid PV-diesel systems are estimated to be around $2000 / kW vs $555 / kW.

If system that supports 300 people needs 30 kW, then the initial cost would be; $60,000 for hybrid and $16,650 for diesel. This results in an expense of $144.5 per person if split amongst 300 people. By comparing the range of diesel (USD 0.92–3.96/kWh) and range of hybrid PV-Diesel (USD 0.54–0.77/kWh), they can save as much as $3.19 / kWh just by using hybrid.

Since the average consumption per capita is 55 kWh, $175 can be saved in electricity cost (per capita).

  • LCOE: They are up $29.5 after a single year ($175 — $144.5 = $29.5)

Hybrid systems are an optimal source of electricity that can be used for developing countries, including Liberia, to produce reliable electricity at an affordable rate. According to a research paper, 50% of the population can afford to pay $5.50 per month, whereas 20% can pay $10 per month. By implementing methods to reduce cost and produce electricity sustainable through solar, there is a higher possibility of extending community-based models to areas in the world that receive little to no electricity. Though electrification is a huge problem experienced by over by hundreds of million people, it is a stem to other problems.

By producing an electricity through efficient procedures, it can accelerate progress towards other problems such as education, employment and more.

It’s not just a problem, it’s providing a brighter future for millions of people 💡

Hey, you’ve made it all the way down! Hope you enjoyed the article, and it would be incredible if you just hit the clap button for this article. I’m Sanvi, and I’m currently working on a project with Ahnaaf & Raina about electrifying homes in Liberia. As a team, we’re super passionate about this problem and enjoy spending time innovating solutions to solve this problem.

Email: electrifyliberia@gmail.com

Personal Emails:

Please feel free to reach out to us!

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Sanvi Rao

Hey! I’m Sanvi. A 14 year old, who loves a challenge and is super passionate about learning the world’s biggest problems.