• The air force

    Driven by technology and public-private partnerships, wind-generated power has become an integral part of Africa’s energy mix.

    The air force

    When the African Development Bank (AfDB) completed Africa’s first ever wind energy mapping exercise in mid-2012, the continent had virtually no wind farms barring in Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia.

    Less than three years later, wind power is one of Africa’s most significant growth vectors. In this short time period, the private sector has assumed a much more significant role – a factor critical to future market development.

    It would be foolish, however, to expect wind farming to be the sole answer to Africa’s energy deficiency. In no country – including Germany and Denmark where it is most established – does wind power dominate electricity production. It is a growing sector, yet not even the Wind Energy Council, an advocate of the technology, foresees it providing more than 20% of global energy by 2030. And that’s from the most optimistic of crystal-ball gazers.

    Wind energy is erratic. It is also one of the more expensive alternatives. A 2013 Energy Information Agency report estimates the cost of offshore wind energy to be around double that of a conventional coal-fired power station (US$6 000 versus US$3 000 per MW capacity). Unlike coal it is green – carbon-free, in fact. And most of the costs are upfront as the feedstock – wind – is also free.

    However, perhaps most importantly, costs have been falling as the manufacturing of the capital installation – masts and turbines – achieves ever-better economies of scale.

    The more the world uses wind farming, the cheaper Africa’s adoption of the technology will be.

    With this in mind, it is significant that the global wind-energy market (that is, electricity-production capacity) grew by 44% in 2014, the Global Wind Energy Council announced on the release of its latest statistics.

    Wind energy potential in South Africa has long been recognised, with a small (5.2 MW) ‘demonstration project’ constructed at Darling, 70 km north of Cape Town. However, take-up of wind power by the country’s parastatal electricity supplier Eskom was, until recently, slow and unenthusiastic.

    The process that led to the Darling installation began back in the mid-1990s. Some 10 years later, Eskom described the state’s wind energy potential as ‘moderate when compared to northern Europe’. It believed that local conditions would enable wind farms to operate at a maximum capacity of just 15% to 25%, compared to some 30% in countries such as Germany and Denmark.

    While South Africa prevaricated, another contender entered the game: Ethiopia. The country has massive energy ambitions, sees the industry as a major growth vector and has plans to become the primary energy exporting hub for East Africa.

    Development of the wider region has been wracked by energy shortages as hydroelectric schemes, inherited from the colonial era, have failed under drought conditions as well as the demands of recent economic growth.

    Ethiopia plans to increase its generating capacity from under 2 000 MW to some 10 000 MW. Much of this (6 000 MW) will come from the Grand Renaissance dam, which is currently under construction on the Blue Nile. However, the country wants to hedge against the impact of dry seasons, which is where wind – and geothermal – energy come into play.

    The state’s first wind farm, the 51 MW Adama 1 facility, began production in 2011. A second, bigger (120 MW, 84-turbine) facility at Ashegoda in the far north of the country was constructed and financed with the active involvement of the French private sector. It started production in late 2013.

    Ethiopia believes it has Africa’s third-best wind potential (behind Egypt and Morocco), and has plans to increase production from this source to more than 800 MW.

    Wind, of course, is a relatively new source of energy worldwide. While the capture of wind energy is an ancient human practice (think sailing vessels and, later, windmills), modern commercial development only began in Denmark around 1978. That country now reportedly meets about almost 40% of its electricity demand through wind sources.

    Zafarana – Africa’s first wind farm – was commissioned in Egypt in 2001. The project initially had 30 MW capacity but now boasts in excess of 500 MW across several installations.

    Globally, wind farming has come under much criticism. After all, the wind doesn’t blow all the time. For this reason, it must be understood that installed capacity is not the same as the actual electricity output of a wind farm. A fossil fuel-burning plant produces its boilerplate capacity, if all is well (in practice, planners assume 85% efficiency, not 100%). With wind power, economists and engineers assume that wind energy output would average only some 30% of capacity.

    This makes wind mapping very important. The industry must know where the wind blows strongly and consistently enough. According to the AfDB, in some countries the technology simply isn’t feasible. Its 2012 study shows that the majority of Africa’s wind energy potential is coastal, with three areas that stand out: the Atlantic coastlines of Morocco, Western Sahara and Mauritania; Southern Africa’s east coast; and the Horn of Africa (Somalia).

    ‘With the exception of countries such as Chad and Ethiopia, whose topographies give rise to high-speed winds in certain high-altitude areas, the rest of mainland (land-locked) Africa’s wind intensity is too low to be harnessed for electric power generation,’ states the AfDB report.

    Just five years ago, it appeared that wind farming in developing countries would be driven by donor and concessional development finance agencies, motivated primarily by environmental concerns.

    Those hardly seemed like mainstream issues in a continent battling with poverty, political fragility and underdevelopment. In Ethiopia, Kenya and South Africa, however, private construction, operating and financing have recently become a factor in the equation.

    Wind power is one of Africa’s most significant growth vectors, and the private sector has assumed a much more significant role

    The mechanism that makes private-sector involvement possible is the power purchase agreement (PPA), whereby a consortium of private companies (banks, manufacturers, construction firms and operators) is contracted by a government or national power utility to build and operate a wind farm at a pre-agreed unit price. It’s usually set for a fixed period of 20 years.

    PPAs have leveraged both South Africa’s current (and big) wind energy programmes as well as the development under construction at Lake Turkana, in northern Kenya.

    In 2011, South Africa opened its renewable energy programme, soliciting a series of bids from the private sector for wind and solar installations. In three of five planned rounds conducted so far, it has contracted for nearly 2 000 MW of wind energy.

    According to the South African Wind Energy Association, five wind farms (with a total capacity of 600 MW) were close to full production at the end of 2014. Another 15 are being built and seven projects are approaching financial closure.

    Cookhouse wind farm, north of Grahams-town in the Eastern Cape, is a product of the first round.

    Late last year, the 138.6 MW, 66-turbine facility completed performance tests and grid compliance to qualify for commercial operation, making it the first of the South Africa’s renewable projects to come fully on-stream. A significant feature of the project is its 25% ownership by a development trust, which represents the local community.

    Kenya’s 300 MW Lake Turkana project has been in the pipeline since 2007. The remoteness of the area, the need for a 400 km transmission line and the complexity of institutional arrangements – involving 11 different banks and financial institutions, the EU and three governments – were among the reasons for the lengthy process.

    The project was nominated ‘Power Deal of the Year’ of 2014 by Thomson Reuters. At a considerable US$694 million, it is the largest single private-sector investment in Kenya’s history and will, on completion, meet 20% of the country’s energy demand.

    These wind farms mean different things to different countries.

    Morocco saw a 300 MW, 131-turbine plant come on-stream at Tarfaya on its Atlantic coast last year, in response to the country’s severe lack of hydrocarbon resources.

    In Kenya, not only will wind farming compensate for an unreliable hydroelectric system (as it does in Ethiopia) but it is set to save US$150 million in foreign currency too. That money was previously used to import diesel for the emergency generators needed to cope with unreliable electricity supply.

    Meanwhile, in South Africa, wind farms are part of the response to the energy squeeze that has assailed the economy since 2008.

    Wind farm technology, however, is also boosting local manufacturing directly, with numerous suppliers looking to set up plants in the country.

    The ZAR300 million Gestamp wind tower mast production plant is the first of these. It opened in Atlantis, just north of Cape Town, in October last year.

    By David Christianson
    Image: Andreas Eiselen/HSMimages