Faced with power crisis, Africa looks to renewable energy technology

African countries, driven by the need to power base stations for mobile phone operators in the face of serious power shortages, are starting to scoop up renewable energy technology.

Countries in different regions of the continent are experiencing an increasing number of power shortages, affecting the ability of businesses to run base stations, data centers, computers and other IT equipment.

Energy and telecom experts have blamed African governments for not fully liberalizing the energy sector, the way the telecom sector has been liberalized, so as to encourage private investment and competition.

The situation has become dire in a number of countries. Renewable energy technology is the only answer, according to Andrew Makanya, managing director at Internet Solutions Zambia.

“We in Zambia have lost business because most business centers have closed due to power problems,” Makanya said. “Mobile phone communication has also become a problem as most base stations are not running because of power problems.”

Pushed by the power crisis, a number of countries in Africa have announced targets for renewable energy and have prepared regulatory guidelines to accommodate private and independent power producers in the renewable energy sector.

After being hit with severe droughts and an unpredictable rainfall pattern, Mali became one of the first countries in Africa to formulate a solar-energy plan and to invite private developers to develop solar projects. As a result, Norwegian company Scatec Solar is building the first large-scale solar plant in West Africa, aimed at meeting Mali’s growing energy demand. An agreement between the company and the Malian government was signed last week. The project is being funded by the World Bank through its project development fund, International Finance Corporation (IFC) InfraVentures.

The 33-megawatt solar plant’s cost has been estimated at € 52 million (US$57 million). The ground-mounted photovoltaic (PV) solar plant is expected to deploy approximately 130,000 PV modules on a fixed-tilt system and will connect to an existing transmission line. The power that will be generated from the plant represents 5 percent of Mali’s total electricity consumption, according to Scatec Solar.

In East Africa, the Lake Turkana Wind Power Station (LTWP) being developed in Kenya is one of Africa’s largest wind farms, if not the largest. The LTWP is owned by a consortium of companies including Vesta Wind Systems of Denmark. The plant is expected to produce more than 310 megawatts of power, which will be integrated into the national power grid in order to stabilize power problems affecting telecom operators. The plant, to be completed in 2018, will have 365 turbines, each with a capacity of 850 kilowatts (kW). Kenya is Africa’s third largest telecom market after Nigeria and South Africa.

Elsewhere in central and East Africa, several other large-scale solar energy projects are taking place, including in Rwanda and Uganda.

In Southern Africa, meanwhile, both Zambia and South Africa have turned to renewable energy, in particular solar technology, to expand the capacity of the power grid, which to a large extent relies on hydroelectric power.

Zambia’s power utility company, the Zambia Electricity Supply Corporation (Zesco), has warned that the Kariba Power Station will generate 500 megawatts instead of the normal 1050 megawatts until the next rain season in order to avoid shutting down due to low water levels.

As a result, the Zambian government has since come up with guidelines for the development of renewable energy. Zambia’s deputy minister of Energy and Water Development, Charles Zulu, has said the government will by the end of the year start installing 20-megawatt solar power stations in most parts of the country.

 ”Renewable energy is the only solution for us as a country. It will take us some time but we just have to develop this sector. This is the route that the government wants to take,” Zulu said.

Other southern African countries are taking up the refrain. By the end of year, Mozambique is expected to approve the first large-scale solar PV projects while Namibia plans to conclude its first large-scale solar energy project.