By Tanu Kumar
SESRIEM, Namibia – In March, I drove through miles and miles of sand and sun in the Namib desert. The sheer intensity of the sun combined with the lack of any shade made it unbearable to spend more than a few minutes outside during the day – and few people do. By early afternoon, tourists have vanished from the desert’s famous red dunes to seek refuge inside and the landscape remains behind, rocky, red in color, deserted, and not altogether unlike what Mars might look like.
Only 2.3 million people live in Namibia, on this tract of land the size of France and Germany combined. Its population density, among the lowest in sub-Saharan Africa, is only 2.5 people per square kilometer, compared to an average of 35 people per square kilometer living in Southern Africa on average. Given how sparsely Namibia is populated, along with its lack of coal or perennial rivers, it is a challenge for the country to provide to energy to its citizens.
Namibia faces two critical problems when it comes to energy provision: supply and distribution. The country’s own mix of electricity production, comprised of hydro, coal, and diesel power, can only meet about 25 percent of demand. The balance is heavily dependent on imports from Zimbabwe, Botswana, and South Africa. Furthermore, only about 30 percent of Namibia’s population has access to electricity, due to the costs associated with providing grid access to those living in rural areas.
While Namibia enjoys political and economic stability, a strong education system, and a thriving business environment, this energy situation is unsustainable and severely hinders further development. Lack of power in rural communities exacerbates inequality between urban and rural citizens, and the expiration of a contract with a supplier in Zimbabwe indicates that the country will face a power shortage in 2014. This imminent challenge underscores a fundamental problem with the current arrangement: South Africa, Zambia, and Zimbabwe themselves do not yet have enough energy to export, and Namibia will surely import the energy shortages they face if it continues to rely on other nations for energy. Fortunately, with the innovative use of the resources that Namibia does have—solar energy and stranded gas—the imminent energy shortage may be postponed, avoided, or even reversed.
Though the country may lack coal or water, it is abundantly wealthy in two other valuable resources: vast tracts of open space and sun, exactly what’s needed to make use of solar energy. Namibia has extremely high levels of solar irradiation and almost 300 sunny days a year. While photovoltaic energy (PV) is an obvious choice for Namibia, methods of harnessing solar energy vary from individual solar water heaters to large-scale PV fields. If solar energy is to provide an answer to Namibia’s dual problems of energy dependence and the distribution of resources across sparsely populated lands, a mix of solutions must be used.
Unlike many other forms of energy production, the generation and distribution of solar energy does not have to be centralized. Individual homes can take advantage of solar power by using solar water heaters, water pumps, and PV home systems. Of course, these systems will be most helpful in areas that do not have access to the grid. According to a report published by the World Energy Council, such systems are already in use in some rural areas in Namibia, with 700 kW of PV capacity installed throughout Namibia by the end of 2005. This capacity is admittedly low compared to the total net installed capacity of power plants in Namibia – 393,000 kW in 2005, according to the UN Energy Statistics Database. To offset the rather large investment involved in installing these systems, individuals can purchase their equipment through low interest loans from the Solar Revolving Fund and Bank Windhoek.
These individual systems, however, are not viable solutions for homes unconnected to the grid. At smaller scales, the batteries necessary to store energy from PV cells are prohibitively expensive, and an individual system is unlikely to provide sufficient energy reliably. Furthermore, poorer homes lack the funds to make an upfront investment and may also be unable to obtain a loan due to poor credit history. At most, homes use solar power for individual devices, such as stoves and water pumps, rather than for an entire home.
Instead of individual PV units, might rural homes not benefit from small, off-grid networks, or “mini grids”?
In 2011, exactly such a system was implemented in the northeastern settlement of Tsumkwe. With financial backing from the EU, Juwi, a German developer and engineering contractor of solar plants, installed 918 polycrystalline modules that supply Tsumkwe with full power during the day. The power is channeled into two 11 kV minigrids, and three generators provide the settlement with power in case of low battery. Tsumkwe itself is over 300 km from the nearest grid access point, but the project supplies the hospital, water system, police station, radio station, mobile network, street lighting system, and over 100 households with power. It took only six weeks to complete. At the project’s completion, Namibia’s Minister of Mines and Energy, proposed the creation of such grids across the country. “I am well aware of the financial implications, but I am convinced that through public and private partnerships it can be realized,” he stated at the grid’s inauguration.
The success of the Tsumkwe energy project indicates the potential for NGOs to provide rural areas with access to energy in a nation otherwise dominated by a state-owned utility company. In fact, this very company, NamPower, welcomes such collaborative projects with NGOs since it rarely recovers investments in improved grid access for low population areas. Instead, NGOs can help create a new mini-grid to supply an isolated community.
Beyond Namibia’s distribution challenges, the other half of Namibia’s energy problem is rooted in its dependence on imported electricity. Many of Namibia’s neighbors have energy shortages themselves, and to achieve real energy security, Namibia will have to look within its borders for power. Again, solar energy is a viable option, but it will need be harnessed on a large scale to support more densely populated areas.
Unfortunately, Namibia cannot rely on solar energy alone. The initial costs associated with building large-scale PV fields, such as those seen in Arizona, Germany, or France are prohibitive. An American project developer, SSI Energy Solutions, secured an agreement to build 500-megawatt PV power plant near Windhoek in 2011. The project remains on hold as the company attempts to secure the $1.6 to $2 billion required to cover construction costs. In other countries, these schemes are supported by taxes on non-renewable energy sources (such as coal in India) or feed-in tariffs, whereby producers of renewable energy are then paid a subsidy for the energy they produce. But already soaring electricity prices make additional taxation undesirable and powerful players using Namibia’s electricity, such as the mining industry, have exhibited a reluctance to contribute to feed-in tariffs.
The African Innovation Foundation along with Pinpoint Namibia has come up with an alternative solution: the stranded gas to solar idea. This plan would use stranded natural reserves within Namibia to produce electricity and direct a portion of the profits to gradually phase in the use of solar power for when the gas reserves are tapped.
A stranded gas reserve contains natural gas that is considered unusable because it is economically unfeasible or physically impossible to process and sell. Pinpoint Energy has identified at least nine such reserves in Namibia. These reserves are considered “stranded” because they do not contain enough gas to justify spending the $2.5 billion traditionally required to build a gas-to-liquid processing plant. The lack of pipelines for transportation makes traditional processing of this gas even less appealing.
Pinpoint’s study proposes investigating the reserves that are both close to power transmission lines and that receive high levels of solar irradiation. It is possible to build 300 MW combined cycle gas plants to convert the gas directly into electricity near the natural gas reserves. Such a plant costs approximately $500 million to build, and would provide cheap electricity to local communities. The plant is not a sustainable solution for energy production in itself, mainly because the reserves only contain enough energy for 15 to 20 years. A key stipulation of the plan, then, is that a certain percentage of the profits would be used to add plant capacity by adding utility scale PV panels and ultimately ensure full solar replacement of the natural gas-fired generation capacity when the gas plants are decommissioned after 20 years.
Essentially, the entire scheme revolves around the short-term exploitation of natural gas reserves in order to pay for the long-term creation of solar-powered plants. According to the study, “the ultimate impact of each 300 MW gas plant will be that 900 MW of solar-generated electricity capacity will be created over a 20-year period without any unaffordable feed-in tariffs being required, 600,000 households will benefit from off-grid solar electricity and water heating and thousands of new jobs will be created.”
How can a state that has a small but widely scattered population effectively and efficiently provide its citizens with services? What if it lacks the resources to provide such services in the first place? The solutions to problems posed by population distribution lie in flexibility and piecemeal development and reform; policy makers will have to embrace a different set of solutions for areas with different population densities. To address a lack of resources available in the present, policy makers must focus on long term sustainability at the lowest upfront cost, while acknowledging that substantial initial investments must be made in any scenario. Each of the solutions presented in this piece requires significant expenditure and coordinated action from NGOs, NamPower, and state agencies. If, however, Namibia is able to develop a model to use and distribute the resources it does have, then it can provide a model for other African states facing energy shortages, including South Africa, Zambia, and Botswana. In the meantime, Namibia has the opportunity to harness sunlight, thereby both improving the lives of thousands of citizens and freeing itself from its dependence on imports.
Tanu Kumar is an Editorial Assistant at the World Policy Journal. This fall, she will begin a Ph.D. in Political Science at the University of California, Berkeley.
[Photo courtesy of Aftab Uzzaman]