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Powering Africa’s economic growth with decentralized energy

The need for modern energy services for Africa’s continued economic development is evident. That decentralized energy has a major role to play in the process is also abundantly clear, writes David Appleyard

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The propolis juliflora plant, formerly a pest, now powers villages in in Kenya’s Rift Valley

Credit: Cummins Power Generation

There is no doubt about Africa’s demand for energy as the continent undergoes unprecedented and sustained growth. By 2050, it will be home to at least 2 billion people – twice as many as today – with 40% living in rural areas.

However, about 600 million African people (57% of the population) still have no access to electricity. If current energy access trends continue, in 2030 there will still be 655 million people in Africa (42% of the population) without access to power. According to the International Renewable Energy Agency (Irena), Africa’s GDP could increase roughly three-fold by 2030 and seven-fold by 2050. But sustaining such growth will only be possible if fuelled by a much larger and better-performing energy sector.

Consultancy McKinsey and Company projects that sub-Saharan Africa will consume nearly 1600 TWh by 2040, four times the 2010 figure. That forecast is based on a number of important factors, including a five-fold increase in GDP, a doubling of population, electricity access levels reaching more than 70% by 2040, and increased urbanization. However, with population growth and economic development expected to outstrip efforts on electrification, much of this development will not be driven by national infrastructure but by distributed energy generation. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), some two-thirds of the mini-grid and off-grid systems in rural areas of sub-Saharan Africa are expected to be powered by solar photovoltaics (PV), small hydropower or wind by 2040. As technology costs come down, the attraction of renewable systems versus diesel generators is also anticipated to grow – although they are often used in combination.

Challenges and opportunities

While Africa’s energy needs present clear challenges, the opportunities are striking too. For example, a new report developed by REN21 with lead authorship from the Worldwatch Institute concludes that renewable energy and energy efficiency technologies have rapidly become cost-effective solutions for overcoming the diverse energy challenges facing the ECOWAS region of West Africa.Key conclusions from the report find the region’s use of solar PV technology is limited largely to distributed and off-grid functions. Senegal leads with installed capacity of 21 MW, followed by Nigeria with 20 MW and Niger with 4 MW.

GE Jenbacher distributor Clarke Energy highlights the development of mini- and microgrids as a key platform in the development of electrification on the continent. Noting that, for example, industrial plants in Nigeria are moving towards the deployment of CHP and trigeneration technology – Diageo’s Guinness Ogba brewery was one of the African pioneers – Clarke picks up on projects such as Tropical Power’s waste-fuelled biogas plant in Kenya.

Green Point Stadium, Cape Town

Credit: Aggreko

Palm Ridge School, Gauteng, South Africa

Credit: Ugesi Gold

In 2013, Tropical Power, a developer of biogas and solar plants in Africa, signed a deal with Clarke Energy to supply the first two containerized Jenbacher biogas engines in sub-Saharan Africa. The units will be supplied to an agricultural biogas plant located at a farm near Kenya’s Lake Naivasha, combing biogas with CHP and solar PV.

This type of project is also highlighted in recent analysis from London-based Frost & Sullivan, which shows that poor grid connectivity in distant and rural areas will continue to fuel the hybrid power system market in sub-Saharan Africa, despite legislative and cost obstacles. With the lack of connectivity prompting end users to retrofit or replace the ubiquitous diesel genset with cost-effective and efficient hybrid power systems, the consultancy goes on to say that the market earned revenues of $358.4 million in 2013 and estimates this to reach $552.2 million in 2018 at a CAGR of 9%.

Cost may become less of a concern among customers with the gradual reduction in the prices of solar modules and wind turbines, which are the dominant renewable energy sources for hybrid power generation. The cost of installation and equipment required for the use of hybrid power systems is decreasing as well.

Evidence of growth

Certainly, there is evidence of growth in the development of distributed energy projects. In February this year, for example, Clarke Energy secured its first project in Tanzania with the Azam Flour Mill deploying one of GE’s Jenbacher J612 gas engines. The project will enable Bakhresa Foods to reduce its yearly operating costs through the deployment of a new gas-fuelled CHP plant in the capital Dar es Salaam, following the completion of a new gas pipeline.

‘Bakhresa is one of the leading industrial houses in Tanzania, and this natural gas-fuelled power generation has significant cost- and carbon-saving benefits,’ said Hugh Richmond, business development director at Clarke Energy. ‘It will help reduce the factory’s operational costs and, in parallel, deliver reliable power.’

The engine provided for the project is capable of generating 1.82 MWe. Heat from the engine will be fed into a steam boiler able to produce 1040 kg per hour of steam at 6 bar.

Indeed, this year also saw the Tanzanian government, as part of the Tanzania Domestic Biogas Project (TDBP), announce plans to build and install up to 10,000 biogas plants in order to benefit the country’s rural communities. The Netherlands Development Organization (SNV) Tanzania and Norway have provided a total of $140 million, while SNV supported the project with $247 million. The project will be implemented through TDBP, while rural technology will be managed by Hivos, a Netherlands-based organization.

Additionally, the Dutch Development Cooperation and the Tanga Dairy Cooperative Union are also promoting a Biogas Credit Revolving Fund (BCRF) with $108,826 capital. The fund will offer soft loans for dairy farmers in the region to acquire biogas plants.

Meanwhile, Tanzania is also home to a new hybrid PV-battery energy storage-diesel minigrid project which aims to provide power for around 400 households in a remote island village of Lake Victoria.The pilot project will be developed by US-based research organization MRIGlobal on behalf of Tanzania’s Rex Investment Ltd. Partial funding will be provided by an $818,000 grant from the US Trade and Development Agency under the country’s Power Africa initiative.

Also participating in the project will be solar power company Rex Energy (a division of Rex Investment), the US National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) and Tanzanian analytics firm Rulex Media. Commercial operation is anticipated towards the end of this year.

‘The minigrid system is certainly the future of rural electrification in Tanzania,’ said Rex Energy’s Managing Director, Francis Kibhisa.

Within sub-Saharan Africa, perhaps the most developed national infrastructure for electricity is found in South Africa. Nonetheless, the country is focusing a significant chunk of its development plans on on-site power and CHP. According to the country’s Medium Term Strategic Framework 2014-2019, among the targets are plans to add 10,000 MW of electricity generating capacity, while the Treasury has approved additional funding to expand the independent power producer programme with cogeneration agreements for more than 800 MW.

And independent power producer BioTherm Energy has secured a contract to develop three renewable energy projects under Round 4 of the Renewable Energy Independent Power Producer Procurement Program (REIPPPP), for example. The projects are the 120 MW Golden Valley Wind facility; the 45 MW Aggeneys Solar PV plant; and the 86 MW Konkoonsies II Solar PV Facility – totalling 251 MW of installed capacity. All projects should reach completion by Q3 of 2017.

The African utility already owns and operates a 4.2 MW waste gas project at the PetroSA Gas-to-Liquids (GTL) Refinery in Mossel Bay, in the Western Cape. The company was also recently awarded preferred bidder status on four solar power projects in Zambia and secured two preferred bidder solar projects in Burkina Faso.

Another example at the smaller scale for distributed power comes from South Africa’s education sector. This year the Palm Ridge primary school in Gauteng deployed on-site solar power with a 16 x 300 W solar PV panel pilot project developing 4.8 kWp together with an energy storage system.

Industry drivers

A major driver for decentralized energy comes from industry, in particular mining. For instance, last year a 100 kW Platinum Power Fuel Cell was installed for on-site power at the Chamber of Mines offices in Johannesburg, South Africa. It is Africa’s first-ever building baseload fuel cell that runs on natural gas, a statement said.

A joint project with the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI), Minister Rob Davies has set a target of 1000 MW of platinum fuel cell-generated electricity supply by 2020, which would increase platinum demand by 5%. And, in a related development, Impala Platinum Holdings Ltd (Implats) has revealed plans to use fuel cells to provide energy at its platinum group metals refinery in Springs, east of Johannesburg, from early this year.

Implats has partnered with Mitochondria Energy, with the first phase of the project set to see the mining company installing cells using phosphoric acid fuel cell technology from Fuji Electric in Japan. The fuel cells will operate off excess hydrogen piped in for the metal reduction process and will supply an initial 1.8 MW of power in two tranches. They will also produce heat that will be integrated into the operation. The second phase of the project will involve the installation of a fuel cell facility producing up to 22 MW operating on natural gas and hydrogen that will enable Implats’ refinery to realize its goal of operating off the national electricity grid.

This project followed on from a 2 MW on-site power project for Sibanye Gold’s Beatrix gold mining operations in South Africa. Supplied by Aggreko and utilizing naturally occurring methane gas released during mining, the 2 MW plant generates additional power for Beatrix from a resource which was previously being flared.

Similarly, last year Anglo American Platinum Ltd, together with Vuselela Energy and H1 Holdings, commissioned a cogeneration plant at its Waterval Smelting Complex in Rustenburg, South Africa.It uses waste heat from the Anglo Converter Plant (ACP) convertor cooling circuit to evaporate an organic liquid and drive an expansion turbine. The plant has an installed capacity of 5 MWe, of which 4.3 MW is available to the grid, reducing capacity bought from utility supplier Eskom.

A blueprint for meeting demand

South Africa’s Department of Environmental Affairs is leading by example, as it recently unveiled a new head office in Pretoria powered by on-site solar technology covering the roof.

Kenya is also one of the rapidly developing economies of the region, as reflected in the number of distributed generation deals recently inked. Last year, for example, Enel Green Power forged an alliance with Powerhive Inc to build and operate minigrids in 100 villages in Kenya. The project, which Powerhive developed, consists of a portfolio of solar minigrids with a total installed capacity of 1 MW, to be built in western Kenya in the counties of Kisii and Nyamira. With an investment of $12 million, 93% of which will come from Enel Green Power and 7% from Powerhive, the electricity service will support critical community services such as health clinics and schools.

Powerhive CEO Chris Hornor commented: ‘Emerging markets will require major investments in off-grid energy access during the next decade, and this partnership… is a blueprint for meeting that unserved energy demand.’

Meanwhile, Cummins Power Generation is working with the Kenya Power & Lighting Company in a pilot on-site power test project at Marigat in Baringo County. The project produces up to 12 MWe and is fuelled on biomass waste. A follow-up project elsewhere in Kenya will also use a combination of agricultural residues to generate power, and a 1.2 MW plant project has already begun in Zambia.

Indeed, a toxic shrub that had tormented farmers in Kenya’s Rift Valley has seen its reputation redeemed as a source of fuel powering a village in the region in a Cummins-backed project. The Prosopis juliflora plant, known as mathenge, had been killing goats, but is now powering homes and can earn villagers up to $1000 per year. Cummins Cogeneration Kenya is investing around $22 million in mathenge-burning plants in the region, including others in Kenya’s Coast region and in South Sudan. Officials said the facilities aim to generate 60% of the electricity produced from the toxic shrub.

The case for increasing use of biomass is a compelling one in Africa. For instance, the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) advocates an industrial scale biogas CHP plant worth $2.5 million, and says the 1760 tonnes of waste generated every day in Nairobi would be enough to produce 70,400 cubic metres of biogas.

‘It is an indirect solution to manage the waste problem in Nairobi and has double benefits,’ explains Asaah Ndambi, ILRI lead researcher. ‘The biogas can be used as energy which we need in the city, while the fertilizer can be used for crop production in rural areas.’

Nigeria is also a relative hotspot for distributed generation investment. This year, for example, Cummins Cogeneration Ltd signed a 300 MW power purchase agreement (PPA) with Nigerian power producer Sapele Power. Under the terms of the agreement, Cummins will build a gas-fired CHP plant which is expected to supply around 3 TWh per year to state-owned Nigerian Bulk Electricity Trading (NBET). The deal comes on the heels of another recent African agreement for Cummins, under which the firm will build a 300 MW plant in Beyin, Ghana.

It is evident that the development of sub-Saharan Africa’s power generation infrastructure is largely a blank sheet of paper. But the continent should be able to learn from its more developed neighbours and bypass the need for massive and costly infrastructure development. The need for modern energy services for continued economic development of the continent is evident. That decentralized energy has a major role to play in the process is also abundantly clear.


David Appleyard is a freelance journalist focusing on the energy sector

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