The ambitious solar power project by Rwanda, a developing country with developed heads, enabling environment and the willingness of the government to partner with the private and public sectors in a manner devoid of corruption, by all standards, is an example worthy of emulation by other developing countries with scarcity of developed heads! Drillbytes, brings to the fore, a rehashed report originally put together by David Smith for the London Guardian.
The 8.5 megawatt power plant is evidence, not only of renewable energy’s increasing affordability but how nimble it can be. The $23.7M solar field went from contract signing to construction to connection in under a year defying skeptics of Africa’s ability to realize projects fast. The setting is magnificent amid Rwanda’s famed green hills within view of Lake Mugesera, 60Km east of the capital, Kigali. Some 28,360 solar panels sit in neat rows above wild grass where inhabitants include puff adders.
From dawn till dusk, the computer controlled photovoltaic panels, each 1.9 square metres, tilt to track the sun from east to west, improving efficiency by 20% compared to stationary panels. The panrels are from China while the inverters and transformers are from Germany. The plant’s construction has created 350 local jobsand increased the country;s power generation capacity by 6%, powering more than 15,000 homes. All this is crucial in an economy, that 21 years after the genocide, is expanding fast and aims to give half its population access to electricity by 2017. Twagirimana, one of five full time staff on site said, “The Rwandan government is in desperate need of energy. In 2013, they only had 110 megawatts. They wanted solar to increase capacity.”
The government agreed to a joint bid by Gigawatt Global, Norfund and Scatec Solar backed by Barack Obama’s Power Africa initiative. Construction began in February 2014 and was finished by July of the same year. It’s the fastest project in Africa. Its first year produced an estimated 15 million kilowatt hours, sending power to a sub-station 9Km away, which has prompted mixed views in local communities. Twagirimana, 32 explains, “The neighbors say they want energy direct from here because they think it will be cheaper. It’s not true. We sell to the utility. Even our buildings get power from the grid.” The solar field is linked to a central power in Oslo, Norway and can be monitored remotely via the internet. Twagarimana believes it will be a template for the continent. “We have plenty of sun. Some are living in remote areas where there is no energy. Solar will be the way forward for African countries.”
The project is built on land owned by the Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village, whose mission is to care for Rwanda’s most vulnerable children orphaned before and after the genocide. This lease provides the biggest source of income to the six-year-old village, currently home to 512 young people who are offered schooling and extracurricular activities. Jean-Claude Nkulikiyimfura, director of the village said, “The project is probably the fastest. In less than a year, it was up and going. It’s bringing a lot of visits from anyone interested in project development and it brings some visibility for us. It’s something quite unique and we are proud to be partners in it.” Some of the village’s young people have received training at the solar site and one worked on the project. Other spin-offs have included a partnership to make solar panels for 250,000 homes. Nkulikiyimfura, 40 added, “Renewable energy is the way to goand we are really proud to have it here. It shows what’s really possible when government works with the public and private sectors.” One village member, 18 year old Bella Kabatesi, who lost her parents to illness when she was four, has used solar power to design a night light at a memorial to the village’s founder.
“The big solar plant is going to help the people and the country because it’s cheaper than main electrical power,” she said. Rwanda has been both criticized for trampling on human rights and praised for unwavering focus on development and getting things done. Chaim Motzen, Gigawatt Global’s co-founder and managing director, and a solar industry pioneer in Israel said, “Rwanda had a 110 megawatts on the grid for a population of 12 million people, Israel has 13,000 megawatts for 8 million people. There was a desperate need for more energy. Rwanda has an excellent business environment with no corruption and that played a role. I also think they were serious about wanting to move quickly. We had good partners on the ground. It’s now being used as a model. You can do energy deals quickly and get things done. It’s a catalyst for future projects in Rwanda and hopefully, not just in Rwanda to inspire others to do what we are doing.”
Solar energy is a key element in Africa’s future, Motzen believes. Yosef Abramowitz, president of Gigawatt Global, told a United States government delegation at a site visit in August, 2016, “What you have heard is that we are 6% of a country’s generation capacity without adding any emissions. It is a false choice in Paris climate summit and this is the proof test to be able to break that deadlock so that the world can go solar.”