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Industry Profile: Interview with Eng. Ali A. Farah

Chabala H. Walter:

Mr. Ali is an engineering leader and entrepreneur at General Electric- a global leader in power generation, aviation, and healthcare. He carries with him more than 15 years of experience in delivering technology and services in power generation and oil and gas. He has successfully held senior roles in complex projects with state-owned companies and IPPs (Independent Power Producers). He is passionate about rebuilding Somalia and developments in the global energy markets.  We sat with him for a candid interview and these are his thoughts. PS: These are his personal views and opinions and not those of General Electric.

For the interest of our readers, please speak to us more about your area of specialization in the Energy sector.

My area of specialization is rotating equipment engineering in the power generation and oil & gas sectors. I’m currently GE steam power MENAT i.e. Middle East and North Africa region steam turbine engineering leader. GE power plants generate one-third of the world’s electricity. My role involves regional capability building, frontline technical support, driving business growth through hardware upgrades and digital solutions that improve safety, reliability, and profitability of the power plant across the Middle East, North Africa, and Turkey. What inspired me to join this field is my desire to contribute to the energy sector and use my skills to advance Somalia’s power generation capabilities. The beauty of working in this field is you get an opportunity to experience and literally put into practice the conversion of chemical energy to mechanical energy then to electrical energy in order to keep the lights on, devices on, and factories working. That is science at work.

Having said that, the Federal Government of Somalia (FGS) has repeatedly spoken of its intention to play a key role in attracting foreign development assistance and private investment toward infrastructure. In terms of Energy and through statutory bodies such as SOMINVEST, would you say the Government is walking its talk? In your specific area of specialization, what steps have been taken so far to realize a more inclusive and sustainable Energy recovery?

Frankly speaking there appears to be a genuine desire from the Federal Government of Somalia to improve the electricity sector. There is a noticeable drive in the public domain by the Federal Government of Somalia (FGS) in highlighting the investment opportunities in the sector. The recently held power sector investor forum hosted by SOMINVEST is an important step. Additionally, there are ongoing efforts to finalize the sector regulatory framework and outreach to international partners that can help accelerate the rebuilding of key enabling infrastructure. Improvements in the grid infrastructure will certainly attract more investors towards renewables and thermal sources.

It is evident that both solar and wind resources have significant potential for electricity generation in the northern and coastal regions of Somalia, how do you suppose thermal power can complement these two sources?

Solar and wind have significant potential in all parts of Somalia. However, solar and wind alone will not power the country reliably at this moment in time due to their intermittent nature.  Inhibiting factors such as cost, battery storage capacities among others, make it relatively limiting to deploy at a utility-scale. The current approach by other nations with solar and wind potential is the use of a wide-ranging energy mix including thermal power. This helps to ensure electricity is generated consistently regardless of load fluctuations as well as to mitigate the effects of daily/seasonal weather changes.

In its National Development Plan 2020-2024, the Federal Government recognizes energy access in general and electricity access as major drivers of economic growth. However, according to an AfDB report, statistics show that perhaps 80 percent to 90 percent of Somalia’s population relies on traditional biomass fuels, wood, and charcoal. Talk to us more about the role Gas turbines and modern internal combustion engines can play in filling this gap?

Access to reliable and affordable electricity is the way to change dependency on burning wood and charcoal. Thermal power generation sources have an important role to play in that regard especially while progressively more renewable power sources are added.  Today the industrial gas turbine in the simple cycle can achieve energy conversion efficiency > 41% from natural gas and be 99% reliable.  The large heavy-duty gas turbines in the combined cycle can achieve energy conversion efficiency > 64% from natural gas. Conversely, the modern internal combustion engines (diesel generator) can achieve energy conversion efficiency > 45% with heavy fuel oil (HFO) and be > 95% reliable. The introduction of these technologies is an effective way to urgently kick start the economy and stop further deforestation and damage to the environment. The careful techno-commercial study will determine the most suitable technology for specific locations.    

Eng. Ali A. Farah

Usually, many of these developments have been driven by market needs. What kind of market drivers would you say will drive an investor to put his/her money in gas turbine technology in Somalia? What does the market want?

The market demands affordable, accessible, and reliable electricity. Although the tariffs in Somalia have come down and are on a downward trajectory, the current tariff of up to US$.50 – US$.70/kWh in large urban centers like Mogadishu and Hargeisa respectively, are extremely high and detrimental to economic growth. The average Levelized cost of electricity (LCOE) from a simple cycle gas turbine is today below US$.10/kWh – making a strong business case to invest in gas turbine technology provided the infrastructure to receive and handle natural gas is put in place.

Throughout the long history of gas turbines, there have been many improvements. Is there one specific development that you would highlight as pivotal? 

Sure, the gas turbine has evolved significantly over the years with the most notable improvements being in the areas of advanced materials that can withstand higher temperature, cooling methods, and ‘combustion technology’. The result of these advancements is the introduction of bigger and more efficient gas turbines.  

Along with gas turbine technology, there is heightened clamor from energy activists and conservationists for gas power pollution solutions. How is that aspect being addressed? Any particular suite of technologies evolving to cover this?

Environmental needs continue to be a key driver in the technological evolution of gas turbines. With greater fuel flexibility and durability, today gas turbines can meet users’ emissions requirements and the current ongoing trend is focused on green hydrogen. These advancements could possibly see turbines running purely on hydrogen fuel produced from water and excess electricity from renewable sources.

As for Geothermal Energy, what is Somalia’s journey this far and what do you perceive as the economic impact for investments in Geothermal?

Somalia doesn’t have known commercial scale geothermal sources yet.

Mr. Ali let’s switch gears now and please speak to us about the Somalia waste incineration market. Is it existent? Does it have a place in the Energy mix?

Currently, there is no commercial-scale waste incineration market in Somalia. Certainly, both small- and large-scale waste incineration have a role in the energy mix not only from an energy production perspective but also from a municipal waste management perspective. Processing and burning household municipal waste reduce the amount of material that would otherwise be sent to landfills.

Speak to us more about the skill and technical capacity available for the sources you’ve touched on above. Is there enough skilled manpower?

The skills-gap in Somalia is apparent. That, however, is by no means a hindrance in building power plants. Other countries have shown it is possible to close the skills gap while executing infrastructure projects through plans and mechanisms involving local and international partners.  The same can work for us. 

As you share your final thought, please share some advice, tips, or word of encouragement to any aspiring youth out there wishing to join or already pursuing a course in your field.

To that Somali youth on a similar path, you have made a great career choice that is filled with excitement and reward.

According to the IEA-International Energy Association, Somalia has one of the lowest electrification rates in the world (17% of the total population). In comparison, 100% of total populations in Europe and America have access to electricity. In neighboring countries such as Kenya and Ethiopia, the electrification rate is 85% and 48%, respectively.

Significant investment is expected in the coming years to change this status. Be ready to offer your skills.

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