Rwanda's solar ambitions heating up, but roadblocks remain

by AlertNet correspondent | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Tuesday, 14 September 2010 15:01 GMT

By Ilona Eveleens

KIGALI, Rwanda (AlertNet) - Africa's largest solar plant sits atop one of Rwanda's thousand hills. Jali, as the 2,000-meter (6,500 foot) hill outside the capital is known, glistens in the afternoon sunlight, covered in 4,000 solar panels covering 2,880 square meters (31,000 square feet).

Rwanda's government is convinced that economic development can only flourish with a reliable energy supply, still a rarity in Africa. That is driving one of the continent's most ambitious efforts to increase alternative energy capacity.

But the country's ambitions face roadblocks as well, including the still-high cost of solar power generation. For now, millions of Rwandans still rely on paraffin, wood and charcoal for power, even in Kigali.

"We definitely want to use more solar power but we can't raise the price of electricity. The price is already high and a raise would mean that even less people can afford it while we want to have 16 percent of the population on the grid in 2012,Â? said Augustin Hategeka, of Rwanda's ministry of energy.

The $1.3 million Jali installation, built and financed by the German city of Mainz - Kigali's sister city - has since 2007 been producing 325,000 kilowatt hours of electricity a year, and is expected to last for 20 years.

COST AND CAPACITY ISSUES

The problem is that, day to day, the plant produces only 0.1 percent of Rwanda's total electricity output.

"It's a great way of generating energy. It is for free, there is plenty of it and it does not pollute," said Anthony Simm, the German director of the plant. "The problem is the costs. Solar panels have gotten cheaper lately but they are still expensive."

Environmentalists believe that solar power is the best solution for Africa's energy problems. Only half of the one billion people in Africa have access to electricity. In Rwanda, only 10 percent of the population is connected to the grid.

But the Jali plant loses money because the price it receives for the power it generates is too low to cover the running costs.

"Our plans to expand are for the time being put on ice as long as we are running at a loss," Simm said.

That's despite the Jali plant making sense in many ways. At the top of the highest hill near Kigali, the plant receives sunlight unblocked by buildings, and the site lies just a hundred metres (330 feet) from the nearest connection point to the electricity grid, a key cost saver.

But the plant's cost problems mean the government's efforts to find a greater diversity of sources of power for the nation - something a growing number of countries in Africa are attempting - may be an uphill battle.

Rwanda generates most of its electricity from hydroelectric and oil installations. But the government doesn't want to depend on hydroelectricity, despite the fact that it is clean and renewable, because climate change appears to be bringing more frequent and longer droughts that could cut hydroelectric power production.

In the last decade, Rwanda has been forced several times to ration water and electricity due to a lack of rain.

Oil has to be transported all the way from Kenya which makes it a very expensive alternative. At the moment, tests are being done to examine the generating potential of extracting and burning methane gas trapped under Lake Kivu in the west of the country. And in the northern volcanic area of Rwanda, research is being done into the viability of the use of geothermal power.

But for now paraffin, wood and charcoal take care of most of Rwanda's energy needs. Even in the capital, most inhabitants cook on charcoal or wood and use oil lamps to light their houses. One paraffin lamp can emit a ton of carbon dioxide over seven years, Rwandan officials say.

"That has to stop," Hategeka insists. "Paraffin pollutes and the use of wood and charcoal causes deforestation which creates enormous erosion in our hilly country. Tree plantations are not really an alternative because our country is small and the most densely populated country in Africa. We just don't have the space."

AVOIDING CONFLICT

Rwanda's effort to find clean green power is about more than environmental concerns. Some analysts believe competition for land and resources in the densely populated country was one of the drivers of the 1994 genocide.

In that year, ethnic Hutu extremist killed 800,000 ethnic Tutsis and moderate Hutus, in part out of a belief that there was not enough room and resources for both peoples.

Since 1994, Rwanda has made a rapid and impressive economic recovery. An ambitious government now hopes to teach computer skills in schools, and make Rwanda a future information and computer technologies (ICT) hub.

But while development organizations and charities are supplying free computers to schools throughout the country, a lack of electricity has thrown a spanner in the works of the ICT development effort.

In the last few years, development and aid organizations have turned to installing small solar power units on the roofs of Rwanda's schools and hospitals in an effort to improve the situation. Mainz, Kigali's sister city partner, has donated 50 of those, as well as the larger solar plant outside Kigali.

Rwandan officials say making greater strides to improve energy access will be crucial to realizing the country's aims.

"We want to give every pupil computer training, which will be an important base for their later lives," said the headmaster of Rwebare secondary school in Nyagatare, in the northeast of the country. |With solar all our problems are solved, and each and every one of the students will become computer literate."

Ilona Eveleens is a freelance writer based in Nairobi.

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