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August 10, 2005

Harnessing Wind Energy in Eritrea

Berkeley Lab scientists help African nation pursue alternative energy sources

BERKELEY, CA – At the southern tip of the Red Sea, a constriction formed between two mountain ranges funnels wind onto the shores of Eritrea, a small African nation wedged between the sea and Ethiopia. The country has endured its share of hardships over the years, having won its independence from Ethiopia in 1991 after decades of struggle. But it can count among its blessings that relentless breeze.

Eritrean officials hope to someday provide as much as 50 percent of the nation’s grid electricity using wind turbines, such as these located near Palm Springs, CA.

“It’s a wind resource that is better than most wind resources in the U.S.,” says Robert Van Buskirk, a scientist with the U.S. Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) who develops cost-benefit analysis models of energy policy. Earlier this summer, he spent four weeks in Eritrea to help the nation embark on a $3.8 million pilot project to determine whether a large portion of its energy can be derived from wind-powered turbines. As part of the project, Berkeley Lab has been contracted to help Eritrea create the most efficient procedures for implementing wind energy systems, as well as develop protocols that track the project’s progress.

It’s a big undertaking for a nation with a population of 4.5 million and an average annual income of $250 per person. The United Nations and an international consortium of donors called the Global Environmental Facility funds half of the nine-month-old project, while the Eritrean government provides the other half. But money isn’t the only obstacle.

“The barriers are mostly technical. We need to determine how to develop sustainable contracts between the people of Eritrea, companies that develop wind energy systems, and technical advisers,” says Van Buskirk, a member of the Environmental Energy Technologies Division’s Energy Analysis Program, which explores ways to introduce energy efficient technologies into society. “Getting these worlds to meet in an economically feasible way is difficult,” he adds.

Remote Eritrean villages stand to gain the most from the diffusion of wind energy technologies.

In the project’s initial phase, engineers will soon install eight wind energy systems in six villages, some of which have never had electricity. These wind turbines will be used to pump irrigation water, provide electricity for everyday use such as lighting and making ice, and power desalinization plants that provide fresh drinking water to seaside fishing villages. Engineers will also build a multi-turbine wind-park that feeds into the electricity grid of the southern port town of Assab.

“In diffusing wind technology to Eritrea, we want to pilot test an array of applications because we won’t know which ones will work best,” says Van Buskirk.

Berkeley Lab scientists are also developing conceptual designs for six follow-up installations that include more expansive wind energy systems for remote villages, and a large wind-park for the central grid.

Ultimately, Eritrean officials would like to generate as much as 50 percent of the nation’s grid electricity via wind power. It’s too early to tell whether this goal is technically feasible, but Van Buskirk believes it may be economically viable. He estimates that wind energy will pay for itself in five years if it supplants Eritrea’s thirst for foreign fuel oil, which it currently uses as its main fuel for generating electricity. Eritrea’s quest for a greener energy program isn’t purely driven by environmental concerns either: the nation has worked to be as self reliant as possible since gaining independence, meaning it must find alternatives to imported oil.

Analysis of ship-based meteorological data reveals the mean annual speed of winds in the southern portion of the Red Sea. These steady winds could help Eritrea wean itself from imported oil.

Van Buskirk is uniquely qualified to help shepherd this transition along. Before joining Berkeley Lab in 1999, he worked for three years at the Eritrean Department of Energy’s Energy Research and Training Center, which he describes as the Eritrean equivalent of Berkeley Lab, albeit in one small compound. While there, he helped establish research programs in wind and solar energy resource assessment, and stove efficiency.

This latter program has evolved into another energy efficiency project. Eritrean villagers are adopting clean-burning cooking stoves that are three times more fuel efficient than traditional stoves. With help from Harvard University undergraduate student Elena Krieger, a former summer intern at Berkeley Lab who also recently traveled to Eritrea, Berkeley Lab scientists are developing ways to document the economic and health impacts of this program, which installs up to 10,000 new stoves each year. The Eritrean government helps fund the project by selling carbon credits on the international market, a process facilitated with help from Berkeley Lab scientists. These credits are earned because the new stoves emit less carbon, a greenhouse gas.

Van Buskirk has also helped several Eritrean students earn Master’s degrees in meteorology from San Jose State University. Two of these former students have recently developed computer simulations that assess the wind resources of Eritrea’s highlands and southeastern coast. The simulations were a feature presentation for a delegation of Eritrean experts and leaders who came to Berkeley Lab in January.

“I’m a communication bridge between this world and that world,” says Van Buskirk, adding that language and cultural barriers sometimes pose challenges. “When I go to some remote villages to discuss our work, a local staff member translates my words into the Eritrean language of Tigrinya, then a person from the village translates it into a local dialect, called Tigre.”

Such hurdles are easily justified, however, as remote villages stand to gain the most from new technologies. In rural areas that have never had modern luxuries such as electricity and running water, projects that raise living standards while decreasing labor often pay for themselves in less than one year.

“It’s an extreme case study in technology diffusion. We start with a place that is a world research leader like Berkeley Lab, and go to a place that is the largest socioeconomic distance from that, which is rural Africa,” says Van Buskirk. “The difficult part is learning how to adapt technologies to a socioeconomic world far removed from our everyday life. We need to create a context in which people can sustain efficient energy systems over the long term. And in terms of evaluating and creating long term sustainability, we find that the villagers, rather than the scientists, are the real experts.”

Other Berkeley Lab scientists and staff involved in the wind energy pilot project and stove replacement project include Bill Golove and Chris Bolduc, also of the Environmental Energy Technologies Division.

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