Throughout its existence, Alcatraz was a prison to thousands of America's worst criminals. But the island itself was held prisoner by an all-powerful ruler of its own: diesel fuel. Recent developments have paved the way for a cleaner and greener Alcatraz, and Africa's interested in adopting a similar system. Here's what you need to know.

Power Prisoner
Every week for 75 years, 2,000 gallons of diesel fuel were ferried across San Francisco Bay to keep the lights on and the doors locked on Alcatraz Island. But in 2010, "The Rock" received a long-awaited face lift when 1,300 solar panels were installed across the main cellhouse building roof.


Not only does the retrofit improve Alcatraz's environmental footprint, but diesel's long and winding supply chain actually makes solar more cost-effective. According to Andy Walker, a senior engineer and task leader for design assistance at the Department of Energy, diesel electricity costs for Alcatraz clock in around $0.76 per kilowatt-hour, while the solar setup amounts to just $0.71 per kilowatt-hour. That relative win ensures that the $3.6 million project was worth every taxpayer penny.

Africa wants in
Alcatraz Island is uncannily similar to some parts of Africa. They are generally isolated from central power grids, have relatively low electricity demands, and real estate comes cheap. The commonalities were further exemplified today when the government of Equatorial Guinea announced its official plans to build a 5-megawatt solar power system on one of its island provinces, choosing powerhouse power companies General Electric Company (NYSE:GE) and Princeton Power Systems to help bring its future to fruition.

Source: Wikimedia Commons, Profoss; Equatorial Guinea, Annobon island province circled at bottom left 

The news is remarkable for three main reasons. First, it's the largest self-sufficient solar-power system microgrid in all of Africa. Second, it will meet the needs of every single one of the island's 5,000 inhabitants. That's well above Alcatraz's prisoner count, and will mean more reliable and cheaper electricity for all involved.

Third, GE's storage makes it possible to keep lights on all night long when they're needed most. Just as Alcatraz's massive battery storage system keeps solar power pushing through the midnight hour, Equatorial Guinea's island residents will enjoy electricity well beyond their current daily average of five hours.

Source:; Alcatraz battery storage system 

Is solar only for islands?
You don't have to live on an island to enjoy the benefits of a solar-power system microgrid. In Uganda, where this author is currently based, solar panels appear on everything from cell phones to water purifiers.

Source: Wikimedia Commons, Elitre; U.S. Army Africa Science Advisor Hassan Azzam demonstrates a rucksack battery recharging system in Uganda 

But recently, slightly centralized microgrids are making an appearance as scale and storage opportunities make these systems increasingly effective. Village Energy, a solar energy non-profit organization in Uganda, gives the following elevator pitch for its own microgrid product:

"The Centralized micro-grid is ideal for landlords in slum areas who live close to the rooms or houses they rent or small rural towns with shops clustered together. The grid guarantees consistent electricity for the landlord and his tenants. A solar station is established at the landlord's house or a central location or central location, from which solar power wires run to the rental houses or shops delivering enough power for lighting and cell phone charging."

From inner-city slums to Main Streets in Anytown, Uganda, solar-power systems offer new opportunities for affordable, reliable electricity.

Diesel fuel held Alcatraz in its grasp for nearly a century, and many parts of Africa still rely on expensive and unreliable fuel-powered electricity to do the same. If Equatorial Guinea and GE can convert an island, there's ample opportunity elsewhere in Africa to take a page out of Alcatraz's book.