Thoughts on electricity

Thoughts on electricity

Today is my 9th day in Senegal but only the 5th or 6th without a power outage.

Outages are common here. While I’m not sure why, I’ve gathered two facts about electricity here:

  1. Senegal’s electric grid appears to be isolated. According to published statistics, Senegal’s percentage of imported electricity is exactly 0%. So is its percentage of exported electricity. I assume that means Senegal’s electric grid is 100% self-contained.
  2. I have been told that it costs $500 to run an in-window air conditioning unit for a year here. I assume it’s a “low supply, high demand” situation, with the supply being low because the power grid is self-contained. In any case, I don’t know if anyone in the USA would want to run an air conditioning unit if electricity were that expensive. (But, I suppose I might be surprised!)

Beyond these facts, what is more interesting to me is how people react when they think they can count on power versus when they can’t.

In Senegal, daily life is mostly adapted to go on without power because electricity is unreliable and expensive. Cooking is done with gas, outside; people are more likely to wake and sleep as the sun rises and sets, meaning a lesser dependence on electric lighting; temperature stays more consistent year round; and life goes on with or without refrigeration, television, and other appliances.

The cell phone - arguably the most important electric/electrical appliance here - is relatively robust to power outages because it can use its battery power to last for hours on end, especially since phone user habits here are less demanding than in the USA. And the more well to do here, such as those who have relatives working in Europe or elsewhere, have further adaptations, such as solar panels and larger batteries. Life here goes on, even when the electricity doesn’t.

On the other hand, electricity in the USA is cheap and reliable, save for Puerto Rico following 2017’s hurricanes. Because so many Americans are adapted to use electricity for almost every hour of every day, I think we are less able to turn it off. For example, in the USA I have made two lifestyle choices that wouldn't be feasible with a less reliable grid: I do a ton of my American cooking in a microwave, and I typically have a fully loaded refrigerator:

So, life in Senegal is more robust to the effects of the power outage, simply because people here have had to learn to deal with with them happening often.

There’s a lot that’s great about having 24/7 electricity as we do in the United States: efficiency, economic growth, and convenience among them. But there are negatives as well. For example, we are more fragile to its absence, and we put greater strain on the environment. No doubt both these lists are incomplete.

As electricity’s reliability increases, much is gained, and some things are lost.

Local access television in western Senegal