Living in Addis Ababa has given me a new appreciation for the options I have in my life. Options in both practical, day to day things, and more philosophical pursuits. Obviously, money plays a significant part in the breadth of options but things like infrastructure and government make a difference, too.
(This was going to be a commentary on options that I, as an American, have that the average Ethiopian can only dream about but circumstances over the last few weeks have kept me from having any significant thoughts and the one section I did work (electricity) has gotten long enough to stand on it's own. So I will return to the "options" theme in a future post. For now, here are some thoughts on how electricity works (or doesn't work, as the case may be) in this part of the world...)
In the US we expect to flip a switch and the light or other device connected to the circuit will turn on and operate until we decide to turn it off. We get very upset if the power goes out during a storm or because a car runs into a power pole. Even local outages can often be corrected easily because there is a continent-wide electric grid that can move power from places where it is generated to places where it is needed.
In Ethiopia, the electric company is a government-owned and -run monopoly. (In fact, the Prime Minister has announced that strong government control of the economy is an advantage for Ethiopia compared to a free-market environment.) But the demand for electricity exceeds the generating capacity. (Which may be seen as good thing since it implies economic growth.)
Most power comes from hydroelectric dams, but the water filling the lakes behind the dams is dependent on rain. When it does not rain, or between the rainy seasons, there is less water to run the generators so there is less electricity. (Rumor has it that the electric company sells the electricity to Sudan rather than sending it to Addis Ababa...I suppose it is possible, but if the government (in the person of the Prime Minister (same guy)) refuses to let anyone know how many Ethiopian troops were killed or wounded in Somolia what makes us think they will admit to diverting electricity? )
Adding electric generating capacity it is a challenge. For example, there is a new dam in southern Ethiopia that has not come on line yet because there has not been enough water to fill the lake so the generators can be turned on.
So, two to three days a week the power is off for some or most of the day in parts of the city this time of year. The outages move around the city so, yesterday, the power was out at my house and, today, it is off at the office. Fortunately, we have generators so the computers and the refrigerator keep working but making electricity with a diesel generator is much less efficient and much harder on the environment than a hydroelectric plant.
Back to the "strong government control" thing, there was an article in today's newspaper that the electric company is seizing equipment used at manufacturing companies if they try to operate at "off hours" like weekends or holidays. That doesn't make much sense to me, but what do I know.
From a professional standpoint, we actually need and use our data center battery backup and generator. A data center in the US may have backup power but the equipment usually only gets turned on to test that it still works. Here you have to plan that your generator will actually get used quite a bit and must be maintained.
Needless to say, I have a new appreciation for candles and how much we depend on electricity every day.