New Battery Back-up Technology Targeting Developing Countries and Remote Regions

By David South, Development Challenges, South-South Solutions


Africa’s greater global engagement and economic growth in the past few years has started to draw attention back towards the continent’s dearth of reliable power sources and inadequate power infrastructure. While demand grows at a fast pace, sadly political instability and lack of security in many countries scares off foreign investors and multinational companies who could help to expand capacity. This leaves people running small enterprises and organisations – especially in rural areas – significantly neglected. According to Zandile Mjoli, senior general manager for resources and strategy at South African utility Eskom, two-thirds of Africa’s 700 million people live in rural areas, and less than 10 per cent of the rural population has access to electricity. Each one per cent increase in available power will increase GDP by an estimated two to three per cent.

The extent of the looming crisis in 2007 can be seen in the problems of the Southern African Power Pool, which coordinates power production and trade in the Southern African Development Community (SADC). It predicts an energy shortfall in 2007 that will force countries like South Africa and Mozambique, which have provided about 40 percent of Zimbabwe’s power requirements for example, to scale down on exports in order to meet rising demand from their own domestic markets.

Plug Power is a research and development company in the US specializing in clean, reliable energy products for areas where power supply is unreliable or non-existent. It uses fuel cell technology to build back-up power supplies for telecommunications, utilities and uninterruptible power supply needs like refrigerators and medical supplies. It is now targeting Africa with its new GenCore back-up fuel cell system using ultra capacitor technology, basically the mechanism by which the fuel cell stores electricity. It is specifically built for remote regions with severe climates where the limited lifespan of a battery and harsh weather conditions can lead to power supply disruptions.

Fuel cells use chemicals to create electricity and heat similar to batteries, but when hydrogen is used, they only produce clean water as a by-product. Most importantly for those working in development, it provides a continuous power supply as long as the fuel is provided. Plug Power’s system allows for hydrogen to be taken from multiple sources to power the cells.


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