When it comes to energy generation in Africa, Ethiopia stands out for its ambitious 6 000 MW Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) hydro project.
While this huge dam being built on the Blue Nile is getting all the attention, the country is also embarking on other ambitious electricity projects to catch up with the needs of its nearly 100-million people. Most of them live in rural areas that have little or no access to the national grid.
Bizunehe Tolcha, communications director at the Ministry of Water, Irrigation and Energy (MoWIE), said the country was now focusing on solar energy.
Despite the country’s official tourism brochure boasting of its “13 months of sunshine”, the expansion of solar energy has lagged behind hydro and wind energy until now.
Ethiopia follows a unique calendar system, and so it literally does have 13 months in a year, most of them very sunny.
Under its ambitious Growth and Transformation Plan II (GTP II) for 2015-2020, it has plans to increase its electricity generation capacity from the current 4 400 MW to around 17 300 MW, most of it from wind, geothermal and hydro energy.
Tolcha said within this plan the Ethiopian government sees the construction of three solar power plants, each generating 100 MW as one of the basic aims.
“We’ve already designated sites in three areas of eastern Ethiopia for the solar project, and have issued a tender bid for construction of 100 MW each solar project on an Independent Power Producer basis” he says.
The winning companies are expected to take responsibility of the projects from design to commissioning and then have to manage them. They will sell the energy to the government at a negotiated price.
The projects could start by the second half of 2016. Government has roughly estimated that each 100 MW solar project would cost $180-million.
While the government is thinking of grander projects, others in the industry favor solar energy for its scalable advantage and it greater accessibility for rural people.
Samson Tsegaye, the country director of Solar Foundation, a company which has been active for the last ten years delivering solar home systems to the four most populous regions of Ethiopia – Southern region, Oromia, Tigray and Amhara – said about 82 percent of rural people live far from the national grid and so need these solar home systems.
While the government allows solar products to enter the country duty free, Solar Foundation is also urging it to encourage financial institutions to lend to firms engaged in assembling and distributing solar products.
So far just one local company, Metal and Engineering Corporation, produces solar panels although it hasn’t yet started producing solar accessories like cables.
Tesgaye said there was a lack of qualified, trained technicians and professionals to properly install solar equipment.
His organization distributes a range of solar home systems, from 1 watt generators that can light a lantern, to 100 watt generators that can power a mobile phone, TV or radio.
“We’ve disseminated around 30,000 different solar lighting systems besides other activities like systems for health clinics, lighting for schools, water pumping systems and the like” he says, adding that up to 200,000 people have benefited from it.
He said it’s difficult to produce reliable energy from wind. The cost of hydro power per kilowatt hour is really small whereas the initial investment in solar energy is very high which makes it expensive for the consumer at first. But over the long run it becomes much cheaper, because good solar plants can last for 25 years and maintenance costs are low.
Tolcha said solar energy won’t get the same official attention as hydro and wind energy. Even so, his ministry has distributed tens of thousands of solar home systems to every region of Ethiopia, especially to women, who traditionally are expected to do household chores that need energy and lighting.
He adds that the government is keen on exploiting the complementarity between solar and hydro power.
“Hydro power works best during the rainy season when reservoirs can be filled to utmost capacity, while solar power is, the opposite, working best during the dry season. So it can act as a plug against power shortage especially in the age of climate change,” said Tolcha.
However, the government is also looking at other less conventional energy solutions like thermal energy, 420 MW of which it proposes in its GTP II plan. This would include using wood cleared from the vicinity of the GERD dam as fuel.
Wondewossen Tadesse, a farmer and father of six, living in Mesela, a rural area in eastern Ethiopia, says he’s getting good use from the home solar system he bought. It powers his phone radio, mobile phone and solar lantern.
The government hopes to include farmers like Tadese in its ambitious plan to increase electricity access from the current 2.3-million households to nearly seven-million by 2020.