Gigawatt Global, responsible for East Africa’s first solar field, nominated for Nobel Prize

The Rwandan field is the first project to be grid-connected under the framework of the United States Power Africa initiative.

March 14, 2015 20:00
solar field

Gigawatt Global co-founder Chaim Motzen walking with Tony Blair – and Rwandan Infrastructure Minister James Musoni behind them, center – at the solar field on February 12. (photo credit: GIGAWATT GLOBAL)

Just prior to inaugurating East Africa’s first utility-scale solar field under the sunbathed hills of pastoral Rwanda, the American- Israeli led Gigawatt Global firm secured a 2015 Noble Peace Prize nomination, The Jerusalem Post has learned.

Citing the company’s “new model of impact investing for humanitarian and environmental change,” MK Shimon Solomon (Yesh Atid) nominated the company – co-founded by solar entrepreneur Yosef Abramowitz – for the prize on February 1, just days before the launch of the historic solar field. Set on the land of an Israeli-inspired youth village for Rwandan genocide orphans, the $23.7 million, 8.5 MW solar field is now supplying 6 percent of Rwanda’s power supply.

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“Gigawatt Global – the first to develop a utility-scale solar field in East Africa – uses a hybrid model to address two critical issues facing Rwanda and indeed much of Africa today: a growing number of orphans and marginalized children, as well as a lack of a sustainable energy model for the continent,” Solomon’s nomination reads.

Made up of 28,360 photovoltaic panels on a 20-hectare plot of land, the field will harness the sun’s light for 25 years, according to the power- purchase agreement, and is the largest solar field on the African continent outside of South Africa and Mauritius.

The field was officially launched at a February ceremony that included dignitaries from the Rwandan government and the American ambassador to the country because of the US government’s key role in the project.

The field is located on the grounds of the Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village, in Rwanda’s Eastern Province district of Rwamagana, about 60 km. from Kigali.

The village, home to students orphaned during or after the Rwandan genocide, was established in December 2008 by Jewish South African-American attorney and philanthropist Anne Heyman, who died in a horse riding accident in January 2014. The fees paid by Gigawatt Global to lease the solar field’s land contribute to the village’s expenses.

Gigawatt Global defines itself as an American-owned Dutch company with an objective of developing, financing, constructing and activating utility-scale solar fields in emerging markets.

The firm’s Israeli research and development arm, the Jerusalem-based Energiya Global, supplied the initial research and development and seed money for the Dutch developer, which took over and implemented the project.

Gigawatt Global signed a power-purchase agreement with the Rwandan government in July 2013, reaching financial close the following February. Interconnection to the grid was completed by July 2014, and by September, the field went to full production.

The Rwandan field is the first project to be grid-connected under the framework of the United States Power Africa initiative – a program launched by President Barack Obama in June 2013 that aims to add more than 30 GW of cleaner energy to Africa, or enough to power 60 million homes and businesses.

Just a week after the February 5 launch, former British prime minister Tony Blair visited the Rwandan field with Gigawatt Global managing director and co-founder Chaim Motzen, who has been the driving force behind the project since its start. At the time, Blair, who is the patron of the Strategic Capacity Building Initiative of the Rwandan government and the Africa Governance Initiative, called the project “a great vote of confidence for the country and its future.”

In the nomination letter to the Nobel Prize committee, Solomon described the solar field as a “hopeful, scalable model” that the company is working diligently to mirror in other developing nations such as Rwandan neighbor Burundi.

Solomon, who served in the past as education director at the village, also focused on the solar field’s location in the village itself as a critical component in the company’s qualification for the prize.

Providing a safe haven and stimulating learning environment, the village is aptly named Agahozo-Shalom, with the first word meaning “tears are dried” in Kinyarwanda and the second indicating “peace” in Hebrew, Solomon writes. The village enables students to “put aside tribal differences and embrace each other as brothers and sisters,” with an educational environment whose “aim is to cultivate students’ love of learning and help them gain the skills needed to succeed in higher-level studies,” according to Solomon.

Regarding Gigawatt Global’s historical connection with the village, the nomination explains that a year before Heyman’s death she had requested that Abramowitz build a solar field on the village’s grounds in order to supply training for the orphans and a 25-year revenue stream.

“He agreed that it was a terrific idea but no one had ever successfully financed and built a commercial-scale solar field in East Africa,” the nomination says. “However, together they were able to bring this far-fetched dream to reality.”

Gigawatt Global’s field at Agahozo-Shalom can serve as a model for the region, by “providing a solution for Africa’s lack of reliable, affordable and environmentally sustainable energy production,” Solomon writes.

Already, the field is generating enough clean electricity to provide an additional 15,000 to 18,000 Rwandan households with electricity, thereby saving “millions of hours annually that women and children currently dedicate to collecting fuels,” providing solar-training schemes that can lead to job stability and offering funding to social-welfare programs, Solomon’s submission adds.

In addition to focusing on the local benefits, the nomination points out that the 8.5-megawatt solar field has received widespread international support, with financing coming from multilateral sources in a number of countries.

“In today’s world, given the warnings of climate change, citizens worldwide must adopt measures to combat global damage and promote the development and use of renewable, green energy sources, as was recognized in 2007 in the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and Al Gore,” Solomon’s nomination concludes.

Gigawatt Global’s model, he adds, demonstrates “the potential to transform a wartorn, low-income society into a prosperous, sustainable community.”

If Gigawatt Global wins the Nobel Peace Prize, Abramowitz told The Jerusalem Post that half of the funds will go to Agahozo-Shalom in honor of Heyman, and half to identifying and opening up other challenging, developing markets to utility-scale solar energy – where the firm intends to continue to reinvest in social programs, as well.

The Nobel Prize winner is set to be announced on October 10, just before the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris.

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