A company with Israeli ties will dedicate East Africa’s first large-scale solar field in Rwanda on Thursday, which will bring power to 15,000 homes.
Gigawatt Global will officially dedicate the 28,360-panel solar field, built in the shape of the continent of Africa, on land owned by the Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village, a kibbutz-style orphanage for victims of the 1994 Rwandan Genocide.
The project, which is part of the United States government’s Power Africa Initiative, an attempt to increase access to electricity throughout all of Sub-Saharan Africa, was constructed in just 12 months.
Government officials and aid workers in Africa believe that improving electricity access is the best way for countries to develop economically.
In Sub-Saharan Africa, around 70 percent of the population, 600 million people, do not have electricity, according to Power Africa.
The $23.7 million solar field will provide Rwanda with 8.5 megawatts of power for 12 million people. The country currently has only about 138 megawatts of power, so the solar field will increase the entire country’s electricity production by 6 percent. Comparatively, the US uses almost 100,000 megawatts of power over the course of a single summer.
“The genesis of the idea to build in Rwanda came from Anne Heyman, [founder of the Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village], an amazing individual who tragically passed a way a year ago,” said Yosef Abramowitz, president of Gigawatt Global, said in a phone conference before departing for Rwanda earlier this week. “She was looking for creative, value-based revenue generation models to help support the youth village.”
“She saw what the sister company in Israel had done, and asked to replicate it at the Shalom youth village,” Abramowitz said.
Abramowitz is a pioneer in the Israeli solar energy industry, and, with the Arava Power Company, he built the largest solar field in Israel at Kibbutz Ketura.
“[Heyman] wanted us to train the high school students about solar power, both scientific and vocational training. Secondly, she wanted to find a way to support charitable work of village over the course of the lifetime of the field [the solar field leases the land from the Youth Village]. We are well on our way with both of those. There is a lot of inspiration in the Israeli social model as well as ‘can do’-ness of developers of solar energy in developing markets.”
Chaim Motzen, the managing director of the project, said the biggest challenge was the timeline requested by the Rwandan government, which required them to secure the funding within seven months and build the field very quickly afterwards. “They just wanted the energy and they wanted it now,” he said.
One of the benefits of solar energy is a large-scale field can be built fairly quickly, he added. The field began producing some electricity in July, less than six months after construction started.
Motzen explained that he expects large solar fields like this one to be part of the mix for bringing power to Africa, though it is not always the right solution. Solar can be more expensive than energy from other sources, such as natural gas or diesel. However, it is an attractive option for governments because there is no volatility to the market once the field is constructed, and it is much more environmentally friendly. Hydropower is a cheaper option but not always feasible.
The project, which will supply 15,000 homes with electricity, also created 350 jobs during construction and 50 long-term maintenance jobs at the field, located 60 kilometers (37 miles) outside the capital of Kigali.
Gigawatt Global, a Dutch-owned American company with an extensive research & design branch in Israel, estimates that the solar field will save families around 12 million hours per year that was previously spent gathering fuel of firewood and charcoal. Currently, 95% of Rwanda’s energy comes from burning wood.
Gigawatt Global is already in talks with the government of Burundi for another large solar field.
On Thursday, Rwanda’s Minister of Infrastructure, Hon. James Musoni, and the Chief of Staff of the US government’s Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC), John Morton, will lead the ribbon cutting along with some of the 500 children who live at the youth village and representatives of Gigawatt Global.
“Energy drives economic development and it drives education and healthcare,” said Abramowitz. “That’s why the US government put so much emphasis on energy. Six out of the ten fastest growing economies in the world are in Africa. We believe that lifting people out of poverty with green energy is going to be one of big success stories of next few years.”