RWAMAGANA – Just a few degrees south of the equator on Thursday, sunlight bathed rows of pristine solar panels as delegates from around the world arrived to celebrate the inauguration of East Africa’s first solar field.
“What we can see up here today for Rwanda, Africa and the world is hope,” said Yosef Abramowitz, the American-Israeli co-founder and president of the Gigawatt Global company. “We’ve come together to see the light.”
The company’s $23.7 million, 8.5 MW solar field is the first utility-scale solar power plant in the region, and the largest solar field on the continent outside of South Africa and Mauritius.
Made up of 28,360 photovoltaic panels on a 20-hectare (50 acres) plot of land, the field is now supplying 6 percent of Rwanda’s power supply, and will be harnessing the sun’s light for 25 years according to the power purchase agreement.
“It’s a very good feeling to know that we put something on the ground,” Chaim Motzen, managing director and co-founder of Gigawatt Global, told The Jerusalem Post
before the launch ceremony.
“It’s not a theory,” continued Motzen, who has been the driving force behind the project since its beginning. “It’s something very tangible and practical and has a significant impact on a country.”
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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, which houses and educates 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 help pay 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.
Abramowitz, also the co-founder of the Arava Power Company – the firm responsible for Israel’s first commercial-scale solar field, Ketura Sun – called the Rwandan field “a catalyst for solar in sub-Saharan Africa.”
Gigawatt Global signed a power purchase agreement with the Rwandan government in July 2013, reaching financial close on February 14, 2014. Interconnection to the grid was complete by July 2014, and by September, the field went to full production.
All in all, financing the project has required $23.7m., with debt provided by the Netherlands Development Finance Company and the London-based Emerging Africa Infrastructure Fund, as well as mezzanine debt provided by the Norwegian Investment Fund for Developing Countries (Norfund).
Equity came from Scatec Solar ASA – which also served as engineering, procurement and construction contractor and the operations and management provider – as well as from Norfund and KLP Norfund Investments.
The project was also supported financially by grants from the US government by way of an Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC) Africa Clean Energy Finance grant, and from Finland’s Energy and Environment Partnership. SEDI Labs, led by Raffi Mardirosian, served as a key project development partner.
Although Motzen was told by industry experts that pursuing such a time line was unrealistic, government officials insisted upon the schedule due to the country’s energy shortage, he explained.
“They gave us time lines that were very difficult to meet,” he said. “At the same time, because of the country’s business environment and because of its laser focus on getting more energy on the grid, we were able to move quite quickly.”
The Gigawatt Global field is the first project to be grid-connected within the United States Power Africa initiative, launched by President Barack Obama in June 2013 – a program involving 12 American government agencies and authorities, including OPIC and USAID. Power Africa aims to add more than 30 GW of cleaner energy to Africa, enough to power 60 million homes and businesses.
A $20 billion venture, Power Africa is funded two-thirds by the private sector and one-third by the US government, United States Ambassador Erica Barks-Ruggles told the Post
in an interview at the Kigali embassy on Wednesday.
“These are very, very ambitious goals and these small projects are on the leading edge,” she said. “We’re really pleased to be a partner in this.”
"By funding part of the legal and technical costs for the Gigawatt Global field, OPIC was able to help demonstrate to investors that the project would be financially viable," Barks-Ruggles said.
“It’s a basic necessity to be part of the knowledge economy to have access to electricity,” she said.
By benefiting the local community, the government and the private sector, the project proves “that you can actually make money building these things” and constitute a “triple win,” she added. Barks-Ruggles praised Gigawatt Global for the swift pace at which it was able to accomplish financial closure and grid connection. Instrumental in that process, she added, was the firm’s strong connection with and support from the local community. “It is very fast, which is great, because it proves that these things don’t have to take years and years to do,” she said. “It can be done quickly when all the partners agree.”
Asked if the project could be replicated elsewhere in Rwanda and in other East African countries, Barks-Ruggles responded, “That’s part of why I’m so excited to go out there.
“I think this is something you can show you can do on a fairly medium-scale, fairly rapidly, if you have all the pieces together,” she said.
As far as the Israeli involvement in the project is concerned, Barks-Ruggles credited the research and development arm for supplying technological expertise.
“As with any international project, you’ll find different partners bring different pieces to the table,” she said. “The experience and the research and development that the Israeli company brought technologically wise obviously helped Gigawatt Global to get going faster. They had access to proven technology.
At the Power Africa initiative, we want to work with partners to make this happen, to get double the energy supply – of reliable, safe energy to sub-Saharan Africa. If somebody brings clean energy to the table and they have an American partner they are working with, then great.”
At the launch on Thursday afternoon, Rwandan Infrastructure Minister James Musoni echoed Barks-Ruggles’s comments, calling upon investors to come build more such clean power facilities. The country has a target of connecting 70% of Rwandan households to electricity by 2018 – up from the current 23%, he explained.
“The completion of this project shows us that when there is such a big boost to the network we can easily solve the problems we are facing,” Musoni said.
The governor of the Eastern Province, Odette Uwamariya, stressed that continued developed of alternative sources of energy is required in order to meet the country’s energy development goals.
“I’m very grateful as a governor to see this project being launched today, because I happened to witness its conception, which actually by that time seemed to be too good to believe and probably too long to wait for,” Uwamariya said.
The author was a guest in Rwanda of Gigawatt Global.
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