Huge so­lar plant beams power, hope to ru­ral Uganda

Dan­ger­ous wait for power

Kuwait Times - - HEALTH & SCIENCE -

When power goes out in the ru­ral town of Soroti in eastern Uganda, store man­ager Hus­sein Sam­sudin can only hope it won’t go on so long it spoils his fresh goods. An­other shop owner, Richard Otekat, 37, has to pay a neigh­bor hourly to use his gen­er­a­tor dur­ing black­outs as he can’t af­ford to buy one him­self, while oth­ers sim­ply go with­out.

How­ever res­i­dents of the town, sur­rounded by thatched huts, rivers and grass­lands, hope a new so­lar plant, which went into op­er­a­tion last week, will bring an end to their elec­tric­ity woes. The $19 mil­lion (18-mil­lion euro), 33-acre so­lar plant-the first of its kind in East Africa-can pro­duce 10 megawatts of power that is fed into Uganda’s na­tional power grid.

The project is cru­cial as Uganda seeks new ways to bring elec­tric­ity to the 80 per­cent of its 40 mil­lion­strong pop­u­la­tion that does not have ac­cess to power. “We are an agri­cul­tural econ­omy, the ma­jor­ity live in ru­ral ar­eas,” said Ziria Tibalwa Waako, act­ing head of the na­tional elec­tric­ity reg­u­la­tor, Uganda Elec­tric­ity Reg­u­la­tory Author­ity (ERA). She said the main source of en­ergy avail­able to most Ugan­dans is fire­wood, while oth­ers use char­coal and gas, as elec­tric­ity is just too ex­pen­sive at around 15 US cents a unit.

It is hoped the in­tro­duc­tion of power from the so­lar plant into the na­tional elec­tric­ity grid-fed by hy­dro power and in­de­pen­dently run diesel gen­er­a­tors-will bring the price down. “Power is costly. It eats into our profit mar­gin,” Otekat told AFP. “Un­for­tu­nately when power is not there for like six hours that is an au­to­matic loss we are ex­pect­ing,” said fel­low shop man­ager Sam­sudin, tired of melt­ing ice­cream and meat go­ing off.

“The plant will pro­vide clean, low-car­bon, sus­tain­able elec­tric­ity to 40,000 homes, schools and busi­nesses in the area,” said Christophe Fleurence, vice pres­i­dent of Eren Re­new­able En­ergy, one of two pri­vate com­pa­nies op­er­at­ing the plant, funded by EU part­ners. He said that Soroti, some 300 kilo­me­ters (186 miles) from Kam­pala, was “where the sun is brighter than any­where in Uganda.”

Dan­ger­ous wait for power

Uganda has one of the low­est elec­tri­fi­ca­tion rates in Africa, ac­cord­ing to Cli­matescope, the clean en­ergy coun­try com­pet­i­tive­ness in­dex. While the so­lar plant could en­sure busi­ness­men like Sam­sudin and Otekat have a more steady power sup­ply, those who aren’t yet con­nected to the na­tional grid or can­not af­ford elec­tric­ity at all, are un­likely to ben­e­fit soon.

And the wait for elec­tric­ity can prove dan­ger­ous. “Peo­ple use fire­wood to light their houses be­cause kerosene is very ex­pen­sive to some house­holds. We had cases of peo­ple’s homes burnt es­pe­cially as they slept or when left unat­tended to,” said lo­cal of­fi­cial Ed­ward Esegu.

Many African na­tions, and de­vel­op­ing na­tions else­where in the world, are tak­ing the lead in re­new­able en­er­gies by turn­ing to so­lar as a first step in their power arse­nal. Cli­matescope said that clean en­ergy in­vest­ment had dou­bled from 2014 to 2015 to reach $5.2 bil­lion in the 58 emerg­ing mar­kets it sur­veys.

And Bloomberg New En­ergy Fi­nance re­leased data last week show­ing that so­lar had sur­passed wind in be­com­ing the cheap­est form of new elec­tric­ity. Aside from Uganda, Sene­gal, Mau­ri­ta­nia, Rwanda and Kenya are among the sub-Sa­ha­ran African na­tions in­vest­ing in large-scale so­lar projects. Kenya is build­ing a 55MW so­lar plant and Rwanda is work­ing on an 8.5MW so­lar plant.

Not all to ben­e­fit

Mean­while, con­sumers who don’t want to wait for the gov­ern­ment to pro­vide them with en­ergy of­ten buy small so­lar pan­els to power their own homes and busi­nesses. “Peo­ple walked two or more kilo­me­ters to charge phones at a fee but slowly some have bought smaller so­lar pan­els,” said Esegu.

While Uganda is hop­ing to triple its gen­er­a­tion ca­pac­ity in the next three years, switch­ing on two other so­lar plants, Waako says it is smaller, mini-grids that are more af­ford­able to power up the most far-flung vil­lages.

“We rec­og­nize that the ex­ten­sion of the grid to the ru­ral poor is not fi­nan­cially vi­able be­cause of the sparse na­ture of our pop­u­la­tion,” she said. Robert Otala, 50, gave up some of his land for the so­lar plant, and now lives 300 me­ters from the shiny pan­els soak­ing up the sun. “It is good. It has come to de­velop the area,” he said.

How­ever he is one of sev­eral who will be un­able to ac­cess the power from the plant, as he is not con­nected to the na­tional elec­tric­ity grid. “We are in sup­port of these projects but gov­ern­ment has to pri­or­i­tize the needs of the com­mu­ni­ties host­ing such na­tional projects,” said lo­cal MP Her­bert Ariko. —AFP


SOROTI: So­lar Pan­els are pic­tured dur­ing the in­au­gu­ra­tion of the Soroti Power plant in Soroti District about 300 kilo­me­ters North­east of the Cap­i­tal Kam­pala, on De­cem­ber 12, 2016.

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