Solar and wind energy: Somalia’s low-hanging power fruits

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Somalia is shifting its focus to solar and wind energy, signalling lower power bills after years of reliance on expensive thermal electricity.

The country has abundant sunlight and steady wind speeds throughout the year, making the energy sources low-hanging fruits for the economy.

Investment in the sector has, however, been sluggish over the years on high upfront costs, lack of local expertise and little interest from private investors.

This is set to change with the country’s plan to generate 50 megawatts (MW) of power from solar and wind farms as part of a wider goal of injecting additional 200 megawatts to the grid by 2025.

The plan seeks to achieve a cheaper energy mix that is currently top heavy on diesel-run generators – a position that has made Somalia’s power bills among the most expensive in the world.

The contribution of solar and wind power to the national grid has over the years remained negligible despite the huge untapped potential.

Somalia has 310 days of sunshine per year, which is equivalent to 3,000 hours of sunshine annually. This is above Germany’s, the global leader in solar energy with an installed capacity of over 40,000 megawatts from solar alone. Germany has less than 150 days of sunshine a year, or half Somalia’s.

“The fact that Somalia has a higher yield of sun radiation and little cloud cover means it can harvest a lot of solar electricity,” says Patrick Obath, a Nairobi-based energy consultant.

Mr Obath says that the Somali government should assure investors of their security besides granting them incentives to attract cheaper technologies into the country.

He says, for instance, that entry of Nairobi-based solar equipment provider, M-KOPA, could benefit Somali homes.

The firm targets customers who are not connected to the national electricity grid with its kits that comprises a solar battery-powered home system, which includes two bulbs, a phone-charging facility and a chargeable radio.

M-KOPA has connected more than 280,000 homes in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda to solar power.

Buyers own the solar kit once they complete paying a daily fee of US$0.4 over a period of 365 days through mobile money M-Pesa.

This brings the cost of the solar kit to about US$146.  The staggered pay for the solar kits has made it convenient and affordable to poor homes who cannot raise cash in lump-sum.

M-KOPA, which plans to connect one million homes in East Africa by next year, has been hailed globally for the innovative model in powering African homes, a fete that Somalia could be part of.

The International Finance Corporation (IFC), World Bank’s private lending arm, says that turning to renewable energy sources, especially solar, can increase the coverage of energy demand on the continent and release funds for other domestic needs in African homes.

But a lack of awareness on the existing energy options has put most Somali homes in the dark.

“The use of solar energy has been rather limited in Somalia because of lack of information, lack of access to end-use devices and poverty, which prevents purchase of appropriate generating and end-use equipment,” states a report of the African Development Bank (AfDB).

Mogadishu plans to halve power tariffs to US$0.50 per unit (kilowatt hour) over the next 10 years to attract investments and light up more homes.

The plan came after the Somali government and the AfDB conducted a joint study on the country’s energy sector. This paved the way for a collaborative approach involving the State, development partners and private investors towards unlocking the country’s energy potential.

The Horn of Africa nation’s total installed power capacity stands at a paltry 85 megawatts, plagued by past civil skirmishes and terrorist-induced insecurity.

High upfront cost has, however, cooled the quest to set up solar and wind plants. The cost of diesel-run generators stands at US$1,500 per kilowatt of power. It is five times more for a solar plant at US$8,000, according to AfDB. This cost disparity partly explains why most private investors have opted for thermal plants while shunning solar energy.

Inadequate skilled manpower and insecurity have also doubled the cost of energy grid and civil works in Somalia compared to, for instance, Europe, the report says.

Mogadishu local government has in recent years installed solar powered street lights, offering relief to motorists at night.

The report says that use of portable solar kits is slowly gaining a foothold in Somali homes, cutting reliance on kerosene use for lighting.

Another low-hanging fruit for the country is wind energy. The country has strong winds with speeds ranging from between 1.5 metres per second (m/s) and 11.4 m/s – almost double the 6.0 m/s needed for power generation.

“Many organisations are starting to monitor wind speeds and sunshine hours in the hope of developing renewable energy projects in the near future,” the AfDB says, indicating a build-up of interest among investors in the sector.

The prospect of the investments bodes well for the government and the Somali population in helping drive the economy valued at about US$1.4 billion.

Already, UN Development Programme has implemented a US$1 million pilot project to equip several Somali hospitals with solar kits in Puntland, Somaliland and Southern Somalia.

Some 100 technicians were trained in the installation and maintenance of the solar kits.

Wind and solar energy cannot, however, be totally relied on as they are prone to weather conditions, making power generation unpredictable.

This will mean continued use of available reliable energy sources like diesel generators, during windless days and long periods of cloudy weather, even though it is expensive.

Wind and solar plants also occupy much more space compared to other technologies. For instance, to provide as much power as a coal-fired plant, a wind farm needs more than 10 times as much land.

Kenya, for instance, is constructing a 310 MW Lake Turkana wind farm in the northern town of Marsabit on a 40,000 acre piece of land, while a 981 MW coal plant in the coastal town of Lamu will sit on 870 acres of land.

This highlights the disparity in the generation capacity and size of land of the plants with much resources going to wind farms.

The Somali government has US$803 million energy plan in partnership with the AfDB to boost power generation and supply to trigger growth and light more homes. “The proposal is for donors to finance 75 per cent of investment costs with the remaining 25 per cent required of the private investor to be repaid by users through the tariff together with operation and maintenance of the systems,” says the report.

The plan proposes an energy mix comprising thermal generators and renewable sources.

“Rough calculations suggest that a hybrid system (with 75 per cent diesel and 25 per cent solar PV generation) could lead to tariffs in the range of US$0.60 to US$0.70 per kilowatt hour (kWh).”

The AfDB calls for a feasibility study on Somalia’s renewable energy landscape to guide investments, stating: “A systematic, in-depth evaluation of these resources needs to be conducted before large-scale projects can be designed to use theses renewable resources for power generation.”

Analysts contend the hunger for energy security should lead Somalia towards the solar and wind paths, being the readily available energy sources.