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The renewable revolution.

Even before global warming became a prominent international concern, renewable energy technologies were considered an obvious solution to the lack of access to electricity in sub-Saharan Africa. The cost per megawatt of generating capacity was always higher for off-grid small-scale wind and solar power technologies than for thermal power plants or hydro schemes, yet they offered the ideal solution to the bulk of African countries without comprehensive distribution networks.

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As with more established power technologies, the huge investment required to make a real difference to Africa's power needs was not forthcoming, but the 'small is beautiful' thinking remains a vital plank of modern development strategy.

Yet over the past year, rapid progress has been made on much larger renewable-energy projects that would have been unthinkable even two years ago.

A German-led consortium hopes to develop the world's biggest power project in the Sahara Desert to supply much of Europe's power requirements, while a $760m wind farm is planned by Lake Turkana Wind Power for the Lake Turkana Basin in northwest Kenya.

Rather than beginning small and building up as has occurred with renewables elsewhere in the world, both consortia are thinking big from the very start. This is largely because of the lack of existing transmission infrastructure: it is not worth building long-distance, high-capacity transmission lines to serve 20MW wind or solar power projects; but much larger ventures would justify such an outlay.

Wind power

The Lake Turkana Wind Power (LTWP) consortium consists of a range of Dutch and Kenyan firms and individual investors, including wind power operator KP&P and project management company Anset Africa.

The consortium plans to erect 353 Vestas turbines, each with generating capacity of 850kW, giving total generating capacity of 300MW when it comes fully on stream in 2012. The winds of the Turkana region between the Ethiopian and Kenyan highlands have been well documented in colonial and Kenyan literature but, until recently, interest in tapping this energy resource had been limited.

The African Development Bank (AfDB) will facilitate the entire $300m financing for the project, including a $100m direct loan from the AfDB itself. The AfDB's manager for the infrastructure finance division, Hela Cheikhrouhou, said: "The project will be of high impact and high visibility for the Kenyan economy. It will increase Kenya's installed capacity by 25% and represents about 12.5% of additional capacity needed by 2020.

"The project, which is a low cost, clean and renewable energy venture, will help diversify Kenya's energy source and substitute diesel-based generation. It is a good demonstration of a PPP [public-private private partnership] cooperation by concurrent development of the transmission line."

All output will be sold to Kenya Power & Lighting Company (KPLC) under a long-term power-purchase agreement. LTWP will provide a huge boost to the country's total generating capacity, which currently stands at 1,289MW.

With large hydro schemes dominating the existing generation mix and new investment planned in geothermal power plants, the Lake Turkana project will give the country a diversified base of low-carbon power production. If the LTWP scheme proves a success, there is also the option to develop other wind farms, either in the same area, or elsewhere in the country. Elsewhere, Egypt and Morocco are already developing hundreds of megawatts of wind-power generating capacity, while Tanzania plans to join Kenya in exploiting its nland wind resources and French firm Vergnet signed a $300m contract last year to construct a 120MW wind farm in hydro-dependent Ethiopia. Phylip Leferink, the sales and marketing manager for Danish turbine manufacturer Vestas, commented: "What you see in Africa is a severe shortage of power. They have an urgent need for bringing up the capacity as soon as possible."

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One of the biggest advantages of wind farms is that they can be developed more quickly than thermal power plants or large hydro schemes. Island nations are often particularly well endowed with wind reserves, and Cape Verde and the Seychelles are both placing wind farms at the heart of their power policies.

Projects ranging from 4MW to 10MW are being developed on the various islands of the Cape Verde archipelago by CaboEolica, demonstrating the excellent potential for decentralised wind power production in an area where inter-island interconnectors would be expensive. From small decentralised projects to large, on-grid wind farms, it seems as if the time for wind power has finally arrived.

Solar power

One of the biggest power projects is planned in North Africa, where the Desertec Industrial Initiative has drawn up plans for a [euro]400bn ($559bn) renewable energy scheme that would be developed in phases between now and 2050, when it would supply 15% of European electricity requirements.

The Desertec consortium, which comprises ABB, Abengoa Solar, Cevital, Deutsche Bank, E.ON, HSH Nordbank, MAN Solar Millennium, Munich Re, M+W Zander, RWE, Schott Solar and Siemens, signed a memorandum of understanding to proceed with the venture in July.

The consortium hopes that the scheme, which is backed by the German government, will attract financial support from other companies and governments.

The venture would actually comprise separate solar and wind power projects in different countries in North Africa, although the specific technologies to be adopted have not yet been selected. However, all would make use of new transmission infrastructure designed to transport power northwards and the very high solar resources of the region in question suggest that solar power will form the centre piece of the undertaking.

Apart from European markets, it is hoped that the project could supply electricity to participating African states. It should be emphasised that the venture is still at the very early stages of planning but the size of the companies involved and the amount of generating capacity on offer at least underline the scale of African renewable energy potential.

It is the economics of renewable power production that is beginning to place such alternative technologies at the forefront of efforts to boost power supplies to African consumers.

Power: some definitions

Generating capacity

This is the maximum amount of electric power produced by a generator, although no power generation project will operate at full capacity all the time.

Most plants require some down time for maintenance, while a lack of oil, gas or coal feedstock (fuel) will curtail production at thermal power plants.

Similarly, low water levels at hydroelectric dams reduce the amount of water flowing through the project turbines, thereby reducing output.

Units of generating capacity

MW--a megawatt is one million watts. One watt is equivalent to one joule of energy per second.

GW--a gigawatt is 1,000 megawatts.

Units of power production

MWh--megawatt hour. This is the amount of energy equivalent to one megawatt of generating capacity operating for one hour. A 100MW power plant operating at full capacity for one hour would produce 100MWh.

GWh--gigawatt hour. Similarly, this is the amount of energy equivalent to one gigawatt of generating capacity operating for one hour. A 1GW power plant operating at full capacity for 100 hours would produce 100GWh.

Power in context

A traditional light bulb may be rated as 100W, so 1MW (one million watts) of generating capacity could power 10,000 of these at the same time, if it operated at full capacity.

The national generating capacities of selected countries are: Kenya 1.3GW, Nigeria 4GW, South Africa 43GW, UK 85GW, India 168GW, China 805GW, us 1,004GW.
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Title Annotation:Special Report
Publication:African Business
Geographic Code:60AFR
Date:Jan 1, 2010
Words:1223
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