Sub-Saharan Africa: A CSP Market to Watch

Aora Solar’s recent agreement in Ethiopia put the spotlight on an emerging CSP market with tremendous potential and international funding support.

African Savannah. Photo credit:

By Heba Hashem

On 2 December 2014 solar-hybrid power plant developer Aora Solar revealed it will be constructing its Tulip solar-biomass station in Ethiopia, following a meeting with the country’s Ministry of Water, Irrigation and Energy. The project, a first of its kind for the country, brought to light an extremely promising solar market with a dire need for power, especially in off-grid locations limited by transmission and fuel transport networks.

The right characteristics

Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) is in fact blessed with some of the highest solar radiations in the world – between 4 kWh and 6 kWh per square meter daily – yet power outages are frequent and only one in three sub-Saharan Africans have access to electricity, according to the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).

“Every country in Africa would benefit from our technology; the question is finding one with the right characteristics, not only in terms of DNI and biomass, but also the infrastructure and regulatory environment,” says Barry Kulick, senior vice president – Africa at Aora Solar, which has operational Tulip CSP towers in Israel and Spain.

“Ethiopia has taken a lead in the renewable energy sector to balance their energy mix. Historically, almost 90 % of their energy came from hydropower but they’ve now realized they need a more flexible mix of energy, so they’re looking at wind and solar and reassessing their Feed-in-Tariff (FiT) policy,” explains Kulick.

Small and modular, each of Aora Solar’s Tulip stations produces 100 kW of electricity and 170 kW of heat, running not only on solar radiation but on almost any gaseous or liquid fuel, including biogas, biodiesel, and natural gas, enabling a variety of operational modes and ensuring round-the-clock power supply.

Stable power

“Our technology is totally grid independent. It uses solar radiation until there is no sun or the clouds go over it. What happens at that point is that the biofuel automatically kicks in and takes over the Tulip. It’s stable and provides the same level of power you would have from the grid.”

Such a seamless switchover is critical. With most factories relying on steady grid power, outages can hurt sales and damage equipment with the stopping and restarting.

Aora Solar's Tulip CSP tower. Image: Aora Solar. 

In addition, Africa has more rural areas than most places in the world, and these are often grid independent. “In most situations, you have the grid and offshoots from the grid, and as you go further down the line you get more degradation of power, so you get less power distributed from the central grid,” highlights Kulick.

Thus, a solar power technology that is grid independent comes with huge benefits for rural electrification.

Regional export hub

Construction on Aora’s pilot plant is expected to begin by mid-2015, after which the Ministry intends to expand deployment of the installations in rural and offgrid communities.

One of the first studies to be carried out concerning the location of the Tulip is of sustainable biofuel sources in Ethiopia, which in itself presents a challenge as the company needs to identify where the biomass is, how they’re going to collect it, and how sustainable it is.

“We’ve identified two locations that we’re looking at. In January, we have another meeting to discuss the next steps with the Government of Ethiopia.”

The project is a tangible example of Ethiopia’s Climate-Resilient Green Economy strategy, which aspires to transform the country into a middle-income nation by 2025 and a regional renewable energy exporter in East Africa.

Ethiopia also is one of six countries – alongside Kenya, Tanzania, Liberia, Ghana, and Nigeria – that are supported by Power Africa, a U.S. Presidential initiative launched in 2013 to increase access to electricity in sub-Saharan Africa over the next five years.

CSP ambitions

Another CSP project currently under study is Namibia’s CSP Technology Transfer for Electricity Generation (CSP TT NAM).

Funded with around USD $2.5 million from various sources and endorsed by the UNDP’s Global Environment Facility and the Government of Namibia, the project encompasses a technological framework for the transfer and deployment of CSP technology, and aims to construct the first, 50 MW CSP plant by 2015.

According to the official project document, Namibia has one of the best solar resources in the world peaking to 3000 kWh/m²/year in certain areas with minimal cloud cover and aerosols.

Moreover, the UN-member state is strongly intent on developing this resource through CSP projects. “As such, the CSP industry will play an important role in Namibia in the years to come,” reads the document.

Incentive schemes

Elsewhere in the region, Nigeria is targeting 7.2 GW of installed renewable energy capacity by 2020 and is working on a comprehensive incentive scheme that will comprise FiTs, priority grid connection and off-take, and simplified licensing procedures.

One of the objectives is to increase electricity access to the country’s rural areas, which, in turn, would reduce the rural-urban drift and enhance the rural economy.

CSP development is particularly promising in Northern Nigeria, where DNI exceeds 4,1 kWh/m2/day and where the terrain is relatively flat. The highest potential lies within the state of Borno, followed by Bauchi and Gombe, according to researchers from the Energy Commission of Nigeria.

Zimbabwe, too, is finalizing a renewable energy policy, and feed-in tariffs are said to have been developed and soon be implemented. Like other sub-Saharan African countries, the landlocked nation is facing a serious power deficit, of nearly 800 MW during peak period, and most of its industries are no longer operating 24 hours.

"The policy is set to address all the gaps, such as incentives for increased uptake and investment in renewable energy and legislation, just to mention a few," Gloria Magombo, CEO of the Zimbabwe Energy Regulatory Authority (ZERA), told Anadolu Agency last October.

"We have put up funds for the process and expect in a few weeks to go to tender for the new policy development. We also intend to learn from our South African counterparts to develop the policy. The terms of reference have been finalized and ZERA is set to fund the project," she said.

For instance, the scheme obligates power utilities to purchase electricity from renewable energy sources at a pre-determined price.

Investment climate

However, it is not clear where CSP stands in Zimbabwe’s clean energy agenda – although this hasn’t stopped Aora Solar from discussing two projects that are now under evaluation.

“There is definitely a lot of potential for CSP in Zimbabwe. In fact, pre-feasibility studies have been done since 2011,” says Eng. Trust Chifamba, managing director of H.T. Power & Industrial Engineering, an electrical engineering company based in the capital Harare.

And while the country has excellent solar resources almost all year round, ironically, it imports more than 400 MW permanently and has six-hour load shedding daily for 80 % of its customers.

“There have been political uncertainties for more than a decade now, and it’s been very difficult to infuse confidence into the power investment sector. Recent developments point to a possible sea change in the country's politics, with a massive change in the investment climate possibly starting in about two years’ time.”

Chifamba, who was among Zimbabwe’s pioneering CSP engineers and visited operational facilities in the USA in the late nineties, believes that all three CSP technologies could be deployed, but initially, he suggests that trough technology in hybrid form would be more practicable.

Ultimately, solar developers and manufacturers who succeed in this enormous market will be the ones who can harness the sun for rural communities’ needs – be it pumping drinking water, electricity production, or powering lights and appliances at rural schools and clinics.

As Kulick stresses: “I think the way we’re going to be judged eventually is not by how well we do in the cities, but by the effect we have on rural Africa, and how we improve livelihoods and medical facilities.”