By Trent Scaccia and Tanele Magongo
Driving through Mzilikazi, a small community in Siteki, one can easily miss the Buckswood Solar Plant. This small pilot electricity generating plant consists of only 1,078 individual solar panels arranged in 11 rows, encompassed by a fence that makes the entire complex no bigger than half of a soccer field. Maintenance of this plant is carried out by only two workers, with the occasional engagement of an external engineer.
Though it may go unnoticed to the untrained eye of the general public, the plant is an impressive piece of engineering given the amount of power it generates on a clear day. The solar panels have a power generation capacity of approximately 100 kilowatts (KW), which can power nearly 800 homes in the surrounding area. With such a small plant generating clean power for so many homes, the question must be asked: is solar power finally becoming a viable option for the Kingdom of Swaziland?
The Buckswood Solar Plant is the first of two pilot projects for the Spanish company Wunder Sight Investments, who will own and operate the plant and sell electricity directly to the Swaziland Electricity Company (SEC). Construction of a second pilot plant began in January 2017, and will have a generation capacity of 850 kW once completed. The plants operate through a Power Purchase Agreement (PPA) with SEC, which will span over 25 years, with the two sites feeding electricity directly into the already existing SEC grid. SEC is expected to take over power generating responsibilities at night or in times of insufficient sunlight/inclement weather. The solar plant works as a compliment to SEC’s already established energy infrastructure, with households in the Mzilikazi community guaranteed to maintain energy access even if the solar plant is not operational.
The success of the two pilot projects has paved the way for a much larger investment in solar infrastructure, a 21.6 MW solar plant located at Ka-Langa in Siteki. The Ka-Langa project will have a power generation capacity nearly 200 times greater than the Buckswood Solar Plant, an equivalent to a third of the combined capacity of all hydro-power produced within the country alone. With this capacity, the plant has the potential to contribute to at least 5% of the country’s energy consumption, considering the fact that the current combined installed generation capacity of SEC stands at 60.4 MW and contributes to 15-17% of the total energy consumed in the country.
These two pilot projects, as well as the Ka-Langa plant, are demonstrating that solar energy could be a viable option to power the country. However, like any technology, solar energy is not without its costs and tradeoffs. The cost of the two pilot projects by Wunder Sight Investments totaled E40 million. While this figure may seem high, it is a onetime initial startup cost. Spread across the lifetime of the power plants, such costs become much more reasonable given the amount of electricity generated. Moreover, the fact that solar and power storage costs are projected to decrease by half in the next decade, this further justifies that solar could be the most viable option in the future.
These costs also become reasonable if Swaziland wants to reduce the spillover effects the country stands to face from importing energy from neighbouring countries. Due to difficulties faced by South Africa and Mozambique in meeting their own energy demand, the cost of imported energy continues to rise. After the 2008 electricity crisis in South Africa, Eskom – which Swaziland imports heavily from – began increasing tariffs on the electricity that it generates. These tariffs are highly correlated to domestic demand, which has steadily risen over the past few years and is projected to continue to increase . If these trends continue, it will translate into higher costs for imported energy for citizens of Swaziland, which provides further justification for investment in the country’s energy independence. In 2016, Swaziland imported 1,077.1 gigawatt-hours (GWH) for the year. This means that Swaziland could have become completely energy independent with just 4.49 square kilometres.
Given the right kind of renewable energy policies and investments, the country has the potential to seamlessly integrate this new and increasingly efficient renewable energy source into the Swaziland energy mix which is a crucial step for the county considering how energy reliant we are on South Africa.
In 2016, Swaziland imported 1,077.1 gigawatt-hours (GWH) for the year . This means that Swaziland could reduce its energy reliance on neighbouring countries using 4.49 square kilometers of solar panels with today’s existing solar technology . This figure assumes that the efficiency of solar technology will remain constant, which history has shown is not the case, as efficiencies in solar have continued to develop in recent years. This increased efficiency could shrink the amount of solar infrastructure needed for Swaziland to become completely energy independent even further.
Such developments have a great potential to improve Swaziland’s energy capacity and ultimately contribute to the country’s energy policy objectives of ensuing environmental sustainability and energy independence. Moreover, expanding energy access to users living in the most remote areas is extremely expensive through traditional energy infrastructure. Electrifying these areas through renewables, which do not rely on traditional infrastructure, could fast-track an increase in Swaziland’s rural electrification rate which is currently 55%.
Not very far from Swaziland, countries like Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda are already enjoying improved electrification rates through solar energy. The improved access to electricity in these countries is enabling extended hours of work and study for households, as well as increased access to knowledge and information through television, radio, and internet access. Not only is solar power contributing to improved quality of life in these countries, it is also contributing to poverty alleviation by enhancing the local skill base as many locals have learnt the necessary skills to fix, install and maintain solar technologies.
Aside from contributing to increased electrification and poverty alleviation, clean energy such as solar power is being heavily supported by the international community. This can be seen through the adoption of the Paris Climate Agreement by many countries such as South Africa, Ghana, Kenya, and Swaziland in December 2015. Countries are now moving towards renewable energy and away from fossil fuels due to their adverse impacts of carbon on the environment. By embracing solar energy, as well as other forms of renewables, Swaziland can contribute to this international initiative while improving its electrification rate, alleviating poverty, and becoming more energy independent.
All in all, an investment in solar energy today is an investment for a future clean, reliable, and independent Swazi energy mix. Solar energy is on the cusp of transforming the Swaziland energy sector, bringing a new set of opportunities and challenges that should be fully embraced. Buckswood Solar Plant signals a viability for renewables in Swaziland that should be carefully assessed by both the public and private sectors in the country moving forward.
About the authors: Trent is an Economics and Finance undergraduate student at the University of Arkansas in the USA and a visiting Research Intern at the Swaziland Economic Policy Analysis and Research Centre. Trent can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Tanele Magongo is a Graduate Research Intern at the Swaziland Economic Policy Analysis and Research Centre. Tanele can be reached at email@example.com. The authors write in their personal capacity.