Can Africa make the big switch?

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Can Africa make the big switch?:

The African Development Bank (AfDB) approved a €115m loan to help fund the construction of the 300 MW Lake Turkana Wind Power Project in the northwest of Kenya. The government of Spain has agreed to lend $178m to fund the construction of a 428km transmission line to connect the project to the national grid of Kenya.


While a renewable energy revolution has yet to take off in Africa, the seeds of a possible revolution are finally being sown. Large-scale wind and solar power projects are being developed in several countries and many governments now include renewable energy technologies in their power generation plans.

International financial organisations and donor groups are providing some of the funding, while the African continent is appearing on the radar for many global turbine and photovoltaic (PV) manufacturers for the first time.

Africa’s wind, geothermal, biomass and particularly solar power potential has been the subject of countless academic studies but investment had been limited until relatively recently. The only countries really to source a significant proportion of their power requirements from renewables have been Egypt and Morocco, with wind farms, and Kenya, which has led the way in developing geothermal power plants. However, two developments have really changed the sector’s prospects: the availability of international funding and South Africa’s decision to source most new generating capacity from renewable energy over the next two decades.

Wind power

World wind power

World wind power

The wind power sector is developing along rather different lines in Africa than in most other parts of the world. Governments usually subsidise wind farm power production through a system known as feed-in tariffs, while project size usually increases over time. Those projects that are under development in sub-Saharan Africa, however, are mostly funded externally and are surprisingly large for first incursions into the industry. For instance, in late April, the African Development Bank (AfDB) approved a €115m loan to help fund the construction of the 300 MW Lake Turkana Wind Power Project in the northwest of Kenya.

The AfDB will also provide a risk guarantee to speed up development. The project is being developed by a consortium of Kenyan and Dutch investors, while Danish manufacturer Vestas is supplying 365 turbines with a capacity of 850 kW. In addition, the government of Spain has agreed to lend $178m to fund the construction of a 428 km transmission line to connect the project to the national grid. All electricity will be sold to the Kenya Power and Lighting Company (KPLC) under a 20-year power-purchase agreement at a cost of $0.10/kWh. African wind power potential is mainly concentrated in coastal areas, including North Africa, the Horn of Africa, the Indian Ocean states and South Africa. Substantial inland potential is limited to a handful of areas, including Chad, Kenya, Lesotho and Ethiopia. At the start of 2012, 50% of Africa’s commercial wind-power generating capacity was located in Egypt, with another 40% in Morocco and 5% in Tunisia.

A total of 44 GW of new wind-power generating capacity was completed around the world last year, taking the global total to 280 GW. Just 100 MW, or 0.2% of this, was installed in Africa, mainly in Ethiopia and Tunisia.

Egypt is expected to maintain its lead in the sector, as the ministry of electricity and energy has launched a tender for a 25-year build-own-operate (BOO) contract for a 250 MW wind power scheme. A power purchase agreement with Egyptian Electricity Holding Company (EEHC) will be provided as part of the deal. Moreover, Cairo continues to guarantee access to the national grid for any new wind farms.

Solar energy

solar energy

solar energy

The second-most-important renewable energy technology to date is solar PV. Global installed PV generating capacity is expected to increase from 100 GW at the end of 2012 to 210 GW by 2015, suggesting that the technology is quickly catching up wind power in terms of popularity.

Indeed, although it is still more expensive, PV production costs are falling more rapidly than those for wind power. Moreover, while Africa’s wind resources are concentrated in relatively few areas, the continent’s solar resources are spread across most of the continent and rank among the world’s most attractive.

Most PV generating capacity is located on very small projects, often on the roofs of buildings. However, larger schemes that utilise ground-based arrays are becoming increasingly common. For instance, the 15 MW Sheikh Zayed PV plant was completed by Masdar of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in Mauritania in April, with $32m in funding from the UAE government. The project will increase the country’s generating capacity by 10%.

Mauritania’s President Mohammad Ould Abdul Aziz said: “This new solar power plant not only provides much-needed grid capacity for our people, it also proves that renewable energy can play a major role in the development of our country.” A combination of a long coastline and vast desert territory gives Mauritania an enviable combination of wind and solar resources.

The government of Ghana has been one of the first to introduce feed-in tariffs in Africa. Although substantial new thermal and hydro generating capacity is already under development, Accra is keen to diversify its generation mix and hopes to encourage investment in solar power capacity. UK firm Blue Energy has already announced plans to construct a 155 MW solar PV project in western Ghana, which would be easily the biggest solar power scheme in Africa. First electricity is due by the end of 2015.

One of the biggest restrictions on solar and wind power development in Africa is the need for back-up capacity. Countries with a large proportion of wind power in their generation mixes generally need spare thermal generating capacity that can be brought on stream when required. Most African states do not have sufficient total generating capacity to cope with peak demand and so they do not possess any back-up capacity.


Transforming wind energy

Wind turbines function by transforming Wind Energy into electricity

Wind turbines function by transforming Wind Energy into electricity

Last month in Cape Town, at the 2013 Innovation Prize for Africa awards, two Tunisians won a $25,000 cheque for an innovation – a bladeless wind converter – which could radically transform what we have come to know as wind energy. It seems to have become universally accepted that the way to transform wind into power was through the conventional propeller system, what we know as traditional turbines However for Anis Aouini, who from a young age frequented the beaches on the coast of Tunisia, the most visible example of wind being turned into energy, was that of the sailing boat. Aouini, an engineer who has worked for Schlumberger and other multinationals, set himself the challenge to convert wind into kinetic energy, in the same way boats used a sail to propel themselves forward. This is when Aouini partnered with childhood friend Hassine Labaied to set up Saphon Energy. Aouini can be considered the inventor and technical officer whilst MBA graduate Labaied brings the business acumen to commercialise what could be a game changer in wind energy. So why the excitement? The technology is novel in that it is ‘bladeless’ and its design means that it will be considerably cheaper and more efficient than the conventional wind turbines. Cheaper because a bladeless design does not incorporate some of the most expensive components which make up a turbine, and more efficient because a sail captures a bigger portion of the energy from wind. Aouini and Labaied claim that the prototype which they have developed, currently in its fourth stage of development, is half the price of traditional turbines and up to twice as efficient. “An average wind turbine captures 30 to 40% of the wind’s kinetic energy, whilst the Saphonian [their invention] can capture up to 80%, adds Labaied.

So how does it work? The sail, which is in the shape of a large dish, captures the wind and the mechanical movement this generates actions pistons which generate hydraulic energy. This has the added advantage in that it can be converted immediately into electricity or stored in a hydraulic accumulator for when wind levels are low or inexistent.

Labaied estimates that it may take another 12-18 months for the technology to be fully commercialised. Aouini was confident that future generations of the technology would be even more effective than the current crop, and could be applied within a local grid, which is a solution often put forward in Africa, or as part of a larger wind park to feed into a national grid. Watch this space.