He has clambered through the hatch many times before. Mahama Kappiah nimbly climbs the small ladder leading to the terrace roof of the building which is home to the West African energy agency. Outside, a cool sea breeze is blowing, Atlantic blue fills the horizon, and just across the road is Cape Verde’s parliament building.
Kappiah is head of the Regional Centre for Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency (ECREEE) in Praia, the capital of Cape Verde, located on the island of Santiago. He enjoys showing visitors the photovoltaic plant installed on the roof of the centre. It is evidence that the agency does not merely preach renewable energies, but actually leads by example. Two floors below, by the entrance, a panel displays the carbon savings enabled by the plant. Of course, just how much CO2 the diesel generator outside the office building pumps into the air of Praia remains a secret.
Change in the air
“Cape Verde is a good place for renewables,” says Kappiah of the location chosen by Ecowas (Economic Community of West African States) for the agency, founded in 2010. He is not just being polite. Right now, Cape Verde is at the forefront of the switch to renewables in West Africa. By 2020, the islanders hope to be generating half of their electricity from renewable sources. The current figure stands at around 25 percent. It is a goal born of necessity: a crippling dependence on fossil fuels is eating up the country’s budget. Capitalising on its own resources is the only economically viable long-term strategy. All the same, the switch to renewables is a major challenge for the ten islands, located more than 600 kilometres (km) from the African mainland. For a start, hydropower and biomass are not really an option. There are no large rivers and little rainfall, while excessive deforestation in colonial times has taken a heavy toll on the islands’ soil, leaving it sandy, stony and poor in nutrients. As a result, intensive agriculture is impossible in most places, ruling out large-scale cultivation of energy crops. On the other hand, Cape Verde has plenty of wind and sunshine.
A symbol of just how serious Cape Verde is about its renewable energy plans is a five Megawatt (MW) photovoltaic solar farm close to the capital, financed by the Portuguese state. In addition, a wind farm comprising twelve Vestas turbines, each with a capacity of 850 Kilowatt (kW), was built on a ridge last year. It is part of a 28 MW project entitled Cabeolica, spanning four islands. The project developer is London-based Infraco, and loans were secured from the African Development Bank and European Investment Bank. When visibility is good, the turbines can be seen from downtown Praia, as can another belonging to Nordtank. This was the country’s first turbine, which went online in the nineties. It was installed along with other turbines on two more islands by Danish development agency Danida, with support from the Risø Institute.
Sometimes, however, despite the Atlantic winds sweeping over the stony island of Santiago and its few fertile valleys, the new Vestas turbines stand motionless. This occurs when the grid is unable to cope with the amount of power being produced. “We can only feed in around 25 percent renewable energy into the existing grid,” explains electrical engineer and ECREEE employee Jansénio Delgado at the wind farm. “That’s all that is technically possible at the moment. Anything beyond this limit is a real problem.” The grid is simply too weak. For this reason, the new wind farm is disconnected from time to time. “Unless we build a pumped storage facility or something similar soon, we can forget about the 50 percent target,” he says. One option would be to pump sea water to a storage facility near the coast.
Delgado knows the Cape Verdean energy sector well – the 47-year-old native of the islands worked for state energy supplier Electra for several years. Then, in the nineties, he founded the company Electric Wind, which subsequently embarked upon a joint venture with a Dutch company to install two 250-kW turbines from former Danish manufacturer Micon on the island of Sao Antao. This involved laying seven kilometres of 10-kV cable at Electric Wind’s expense, an obligation which it farmed out to a private energy producer. Grid expansion is a priority for Delgado: “If Sao Antao’s grid can be made more stable, we plan to build more turbines at two other locations where the average wind speed is nine to ten metres per second.” The long-term plan is for the entire country’s grid to be upgraded to 20 kilovolts (kV).
As a wind energy pioneer, he is very much in favour of the Cabeolica wind project, which he sees as a “major step in the right direction and a flagship project for all of West Africa.” At the same time, Delgado criticises the lack of know-how transfer by the parties involved. “It is not enough to just set up the turbines and leave operation to inexperienced technicians in an under-developed country,” he says. He is referring to two Nordtank turbines on the island of Sal, which after a short period of operation were no longer maintained, resulting in extensive downtime.
Demand driven by tourism
Dust swirls around the gate of the solar farm. “Opening on 15 April 2010,” says a small sign. Osvaldo Nogueira smiles. The name “Electra” can be made out on his slightly oversized overalls. “This is a major challenge for us energy suppliers,” says the 32-year-old mechanical engineer from Electra, the supplier which owns the plant. Nogueira is in charge of operating it. “We generate around 20,000 kilowatt hours (kWh) of solar electricity a day, enough to cover about ten percent of Praia’s needs,” he explains. While the solar farm ensures a relatively constant feed-in, wind power yields are less predictable. “Sometimes we have plenty, and sometimes none at all,” he says. “We need to build a 60-kV line across the entire island so we can make use of variable wind currents at all,” says Nogueira. He hopes that it will be possible to make better use of wind and sun energy in the future. However, a major obstacle lies in the way: “We are a poor country, and our investments in renewable energies are already pushing us to the limit – there is very little money left over for grid expansion.”
Meanwhile, demand for electricity on all of Cape Verde’s islands is on the rise. This is partly due to a growing tourism industry. Last year alone saw a 20 percent rise in visitor numbers over the previous year. In order to keep up with this demand, Electra is building a 20-MW diesel CHP plant a stone’s throw from the PV farm.
A similar juxtaposition of diesel units and renewable energy can be observed on the sandy island of Sal, in the north of the archipelago. On Sal, tourism is taking faster than anywhere else in Cape Verde. Many visitors are drawn to the long beaches and pounding surf. The tourists are welcome – after all, they bring money and jobs to the island, where salt used to be harvested in Portuguese colonial times. Just a few kilometres south of the former salt works, ten 850-kW Vestas turbines have been in operation since late 2011. Along with a 2.5-MW solar farm near the coastal village of Santa Maria, they herald a new era of energy supply. Speaking of salt: while salt water is everywhere to be found, drinking water is a precious – and expensive – resource. A cubic metre costs EUR 11.5 on the island, while a kWh of electricity costs consumers EUR 0.28.
These prices make it all the more surprising that the recently built Spanish hotel chains use neither solar thermal nor PV energy. One of the few hoteliers to make direct use of renewables is Francisco Lopes. On sunny days, the solar thermal plant on the roof of his 25-room hotel in Santa Maria is able to meet all of the hotel’s hot water needs. This saves Lopes the money he used to spend on expensive electricity for an instantaneous water heater. At the same time, it takes some pressure off the power grid, which comes under a great deal of strain in the evening when all the tourists are showering after a long day at the beach. However, no building regulations obliging the tourist industry to make greater use of solar energy have been established so far.
A common goal for West Africa?
Despite all these problems and contradictions, West Africa’s smallest country, with just half a million inhabitants, is a role model for the Ecowas community. In countries such as Ghana, Benin and Togo, wind, sun, hydro and biomass face far greater obstacles. “With consumer electricity prices of EUR 0.045 per kilowatt hour, there is little scope for development,” explains energy expert Kappiah. In contrast, Mali and Niger have enjoyed some progress in terms of decentralised generation in the private sector, particularly in solar power. However, in neighbouring Nigeria, with its 150 million inhabitants, this is out of the question. The country is in poor shape: natural resources are being ruthlessly exploited by oil companies, and the political classes are riddled with corruption. In a system plagued by rent-seeking, newcomers to the energy business do not stand a chance, while state energy suppliers make no effort to pursue renewable energies. “The short-term cash mentality is a problem in Nigeria and elsewhere,” says Kappiah, referring to the situation in other member states.
The head of ECREEE is in no doubt: the establishment of renewable energies in West Africa must be accompanied by socio-political change. For this reason, alongside its investments in large power plants, ECREEE also keeps the smallest projects, deep in the countryside far from the big cities and power grids, firmly in its sights. Sustainable electricity benefits entire village communities. Hospitals and schools need electrical lights and refrigerators to cool medicines and perishable foods. “It is an important community responsibility, which keeps rural exodus in check,” says Kappiah. “If a country has no tradition of social policy, there is generally little scope for decentralised, renewable energies.” But it is not just this lack of awareness, or the divergent energy policies within the Ecowas community, that he is worried about: in several West African countries, confrontations between Muslim and Christian communities are escalating. This too is an obstacle to restructuring the energy supply. “Religions pose a real problem,” says Kappiah, “they mislead people with promises, and cripple progress.”
But there is also cause for hope: Ecowas has plans to rapidly expand the agency. Employee numbers are growing, and its annual budget has doubled to EUR 7 million. “Although Ecowas has yet to establish binding targets for all its member states, our goal is for many West African countries to obtain 10 to 25 percent of their energy from renewables by 2020,” says Kappiah. Alongside renewable energy, energy efficiency is another major issue. Savings of around 30 percent are planned in the coming years. This is a mammoth task for the energy agency. Regardless of how soon success can be claimed, ECREEE is ushering in a long-overdue new era for energy in West Africa, or indeed all of Sub-Saharan Africa – with Cape Verde leading the way.