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You think African renewable energy needs solar? Think again.

Last week the 350 team were meeting government officials in Malawi and Zambia, and during the journey we saw just how important geographical concerns are for renewable development. In particular, as we explored the issues facing African renewable energy we confirmed a key element of our strategy to match the right renewable technology to the local ecosystem, economic needs and political climate for the region. Put simply, Sub-Saharan Africa doesn’t need solar.

It placed us in the unusual position of being invited to discuss expanding the Malawian renewable power supply from 350MW towards their long term goal of 2GW but advising the government and domestic electricity suppliers to consider a move towards lower carbon, sustainable fuels rather than take the leap into full blown Hydro and Solar projects. That might sound strange for a renewable developer but our goal is fighting climate change with commercial means, and sometimes that means taking a broader view of the issues than recommending renewables where they’re not going to deliver the necessary results.

Renewable energy problems for developing economies in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Our intensive (and exceptionally well organised by our hosts) round of meetings began in Malawi with the Malawian Investment and Trade Centre (MITC). Malawi is a poor country with a developing economy, despite rich copper reserves, mining potential and the support of the UN Development Programme, World Bank and International Finance Corporation (IFC) they are short of power generation projects and rely heavily on agriculture. Understandably the government is heavily focused on developing a power supply to support economic growth, because without first tackling the power supply and infrastructure it’s hard to attract investment in other areas of the economy that need a stable power supply to grow.

The broad shape of these exploratory talks was to examine the success of their current renewable power project – a 350MW hydro plant – and discuss adding to the renewable mix with solar power projects to boost the supply to 2GW over time. We met an array of government officials, including the Secretary to the President, and refreshingly they were all singing from the same hymn sheet – a clear commitment to focus on renewables. We discussed the potential to develop two initial facilities, a 100MW solar plant in Lilongwe and second 100Mw in Blantyre. The discussions were moving well, but when we met the delegates from ESCOM (Electricity Supply Corporation of Malawi), it became apparent that solar was not on their agenda at all.

The view from ESCOM was solar wasn’t an effective option for their power expansion needs. Despite government favour for solar power, ESCOM explained Malawi’s grid architecture couldn’t adapt to make use of it very effectively. The Malawian grid is comprised of some very long distance cabling in places, which is difficult to electrify and maintain the flow of power between peak and off-peak usage hours. Their engineers need systems that can dial the power supply up and down to handle surges in demand, and the intermittent load from solar plants was too unpredictable for that. Which is a good point – we’ve talked (and written here) extensively about intermittency and the issues that grids encounter because of it. As far as ESCOM are concerned, neither solar nor wind are compatible with their grids.

In addition to this significant issue was the cost of solar and its efficiency. For a poor economy, solar represents a very expensive form of energy and requires investment which is hard to raise in Malawi. Compared with Hydro power, solar is about 25% as effective per MW of potential capacity. Hydro plants might be more expensive by some considerable margin, but their load factor is normally around 80-90% opposed to solar, which can be a lot lower in terms of capacity (UK Solar averages of 10%, or 20% in prime solar locations like Chile). The disparity in different renewable loads means for each MW of installed capacity Hydro will produce around 4.5 times more usable power than a MW of solar capacity. However, when the discussions moved onto hydro power, ESCOM explained they weren’t keen on that either.

There is a reasonably high level of risk with building hydro plants in Sub-Saharan Africa. Although the region is criss-crossed with long, high throughput river systems (which on paper make it ideal) there’s a real risk that as more countries develop hydro plants upstream, Malawi’s hydro plants could be rendered ineffective. This has been a major political flashpoint in the past, sparking threats of military action by Egypt against Ethiopia over their plans to build hydro power in the Nile upstream from Egypt’s own plants.

All in all, the outcome of our meeting was clear as far as renewable strategies for power supply were concerned. The Malawian grid structure didn’t need wind or solar, and hydro represented a political and economic risk that ruled it out of the equation. So what is the right solution?

Biomass makes more sense in this geography.

We didn’t experience any brownouts in Malawi, but on our subsequent visit to Zambia (where they’re also looking to develop more solar) there’s a power outage every night in Lusaka at 6pm through to 7am. Which put an even finer point on the problem: If you’ve got power all day, but no power at night, the solution you need isn’t solar. Or wind, which is the most unpredictable of all and therefore the most unreliable renewable energy source. And the same risks apply to hydro in Zambia as in Malawi.

After more exploration of the grid issues, local politics and investment risks, it became obvious the solution for sub-saharan Africa is biomass. Whether it’s rice husk or wood pellets, pulp, paper etc. Biomass boilers make a lot of sense. They supply the controllable output as required for the local grids and can be dialled up or dialled down. They also create jobs within heavily agricultural economies and leverages the skills already acquired by the agrarian workforce. By linking agriculture with power supply, it’s possible to create a sustainable basis to supply power for economic expansion with less investment and lower risk.

It also supplies a neat solution to emissions issues, too. Biomass boilers create emissions, but lower than burning oil or gas. Also, broadly speaking, the biomass process produces emissions reductions more or less on par with solar because the growth of young trees to feed the boilers absorbs much more CO2 than established, older trees. The process of cutting young trees for wood and planting saplings to sustain the biomass supply delivers decent CO2 reductions. And in addition to this if you’re using agricultural residues, burning them creates a lot less green house gas than simply letting them decompose and release CO2 and CH4 that way. Fortunately our experience in carbon abatement through our sister company Carbon 350 has been extensive where bio-digestion and biomass burners are concerned (which are very popular in the Chinese renewable energy mix) and so we could offer a lot of advice and insight into how ESCOM should proceed.

The right tech in the right geography.

Of course, geographical and political issues don’t just apply in Africa. We’ve seen a similar variations in renewable logic in Peru. Even though Peru has excellent direct natural irradiance (DNI) and so the government there is obviously interested in solar to supply their large scale rural electrification projects, most of the long power purchase agreements relate to hydro. Again, although hydro projects are about double the cost of solar, the grid issues for Peru and the lower target price for selling hydro makes it more suitable for the Peruvian economy and their geographical needs.

What our recent experiences in Africa and South America have shown that lower emissions is a goal best served by long term strategic thinking, taking into account a range of issues about what is appropriate for the region. It’s taken us to neighbouring states like Chile and Peru, and shown that where solar is effective in one, it’s not going to cut it in the other. By the same token, in Africa we’ve met governments who are sold on solar, but in reality need to focus on adapting their agricultural economies to providing sustainable, lower carbon biomass boilers and avoid the potential future conflicts that might come with hydro. In the longer term, we expect to see more developing nations addressing their own electricity supply issues with smarter strategic thinking, because only by deploying the right low carbon tech in the correct geography can we hope to reduce emissions with commercial means.

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