Botswana’s Earth, Wind and Fire strategy for energy

Shining bright: Renewable energy accounts for 80% of government’s power plans till 2040
Shining bright: Renewable energy accounts for 80% of government’s power plans till 2040

From the current capacity of just six megawatts, government technocrats and their partners in the private sector, want more than a third of the country’s electricity to come from renewable sources by 2036. The target is based on an “Earth, Wind and Fire” approach which Staff Writer, MBONGENI MGUNI explains

From Independence, the country’s electrification has been based on fossil fuels, particularly the coal at Morupule. The strengthening effects of climate change, seen locally in more frequent droughts, as well as the need to keep pace with the economy’s energy requirements in years to come, mean alternative sources of electricity need to be explored now.

While coal, the fossil fuel that has powered the country since 1966, is abundant locally, Botswana has made global commitments to switch to renewable energy in coming years, playing its part in “saving the planet”.

Financiers are shunning new coal projects, meaning the developers presently finalising near-term projects on the country’s coalfields have had to lean harder into government for financial support.

Botswana, as a developing country, has a window up to 2050 under the UN’s Conference of Parties 24 (COP24) within which to develop its coal. This is a period local stakeholders such as the Botswana Chamber of Mines hope will allow near-term developers to initiate, run and decommission, while supporting the economy through those years.

Even as government supports the near-term developers, however, it has its eyes on its global renewable energy targets and under the 20-year Integrated Resource Development plan unveiled last year, 80% of new power procured by government over that period will be renewable.

The target, according to available government documents, is to have renewables at least accounting for 15% of the energy mix by 2030 and 36% by 2036.

By the end of 2020, the country had just six megawatts (MW) capacity of renewable energy installed, against total demand of more than 500MW, representing less than two percent.

Getting to the 15% and 36% targets will depend on an Earth, Wind and Fire approach that seeks to leverage the wide, largely flat open spaces the country has as well as its abundant sunshine. The wide open and flat spaces (Earth) provide the perfect backbone for wind (Wind) and solar (Fire) renewable energy projects that will propel the country to a new cleaner and more sustainable energy era.

Added to this is the country’s high biomass potential, the plant or animal material used as fuel to produce electricity or heat.

“High irradiation rates, abundant biomass residues and significant wind and solar potential present considerable opportunities for Botswana to enhance domestic energy security and increase access to modern energy services,” the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) said in a recent assessment of the country’s renewable energy readiness.

IRENA experts began their assessment of the country’s readiness for the transition to renewables in March 2019 and recently released a report showing Botswana’s strong potential for transformation.

“Botswana has a significant endowment of renewable energy resources that if fully developed could stimulate sustainable, economy wide gains that benefit all Batswana,” said IRENA director-general Francesco La Camera.

“We will work closely with the Government of Botswana as it pursues a new energy future, to ensure that the recommendations of this study help inform planning and policymaking in the years ahead.”

Areas IRENA believes need attention to reach the targets government has set for itself, include implementing the long-term vision for renewable energy development with binding commitments supported by data from pre-feasibility studies to help address investment risks and attract private sector participation. The assessment also points to the integration of renewable energy beyond the power sector by developing well-aligned strategies for renewable energy in agriculture, transport, heating, cooling, and cooking.

Other recommendations include revising the tariff-setting structure, defining a clear regulatory framework to manage risks involved in private sector participation, performing a location-specific pre-feasibility study for renewable energy generation and streamline permitting processes.

Government is also urged to conduct a study on the capability of the grid to absorb power from variable renewable energy sources, integrate rural electrification strategies into a single, comprehensive document and consolidate rural electrification activities.

Other recommendations are areas which government is already working on such as support for solar rooftop and home systems with incentives in place and developing local human resource capacity throughout the renewables value chain.

Moving from under two percent renewables to 15% by 2030, or the next nine years, may seem like an ambitious goal, particularly given the novelty of the sector, lead-time involved in energy projects and the tendency of the wheels in government to turn slowly.

However, policymakers in government are confident of a rapid transition. In fact, according to Mineral Resources, Green Technology and Energy Security minister, Lefoko Moagi, renewables will account for 17% of the local energy mix by as early as next year.

“In terms of green technology, my ministry is currently considering a portfolio of projects with a potential for growing and diversifying the economy and creating employment,” he said earlier this year.

“These include the development of large and small scale solar photovoltaic generation projects, which upon completion in 2022 will result in renewable energy constituting 17% of the total electricity generation mix of 769 MW net.”

Projects in the pipeline for renewables include the 100MW Coal Bed Methane plant due by 2025 and up to 735MW of solar photovoltaic plants due between 2022 and 2027. The projects in the IRP do not include the five-gigawatt solar project being developed by Botswana and Namibia with support from the United States. The two countries and supporting financiers recently signed a Memorandum of Understanding, a development endorsed by US president, Joe Biden.

The IRP also does not include Shumba Energy’s planned 100MW solar plant which it is developing at a cost of more than P800 million on 300 hectares in Tati.

Unlike the projects in the IRP, Shumba Energy’s plant is targeting sales directly into the region.

"There's a significant electricity deficit in the region and solar is not part of the projects coming up," Shumba Energy MD, Mashale Phumaphi said.

"Different countries have relied on utilities to procure power through government-backed Power Purchase Agreements which typically run for up to 20yrs, which can be cumbersome on most utilities, many of which are in difficult financial situations.

"This is an opportunity to supply directly into the market where customers are waiting."

Shumba Energy, which holds millions of tonnes of coal licences in eastern Botswana, has said the Tati solar project is now the group’s priority.

With the project due to be in place before the end of 2022, Shumba Energy will be the first large-scale renewable project in the country and thus the first test of initiating the energy transition, including key factors such as sourcing technology, human resources and pricing of the electricity. Government is reportedly keenly watching the development as a case study for its own plans under the IRP.

Shumba Energy is taking a phased approach to the plant and hopes to finalise funding for the first 50MW in a few months’ time.

“We have ongoing discussions at the moment and it may happen that we do both phases at the same time,” he said.

“However, the bigger the project, the more difficult it is to do at once.

“Sometimes, it’s better to do it in phases and the advantage with solar projects is that with time the costs of panels on average are going down and it may be possible to have a cheaper second phase.”

For Moagi, the immediate “case study” is the solar roof-top project launched last November which has been capped at 12MW in the first 12 months and covers households, commercial and industrial sectors. The programme involves allowing consumers to generate their own electricity and sell the excess into the Botswana Power Corporation grid. Between December 1 2020, when the initiative kicked off officially, and February 15, the Botswana Energy Regulatory Authority received 60 applications for roof-top licences consisting of 50 domestic and 10 business applications.

Government expects that this strong interest in green energy will anchor the Earth, Wind and Fire strategy and meet the targets it has set itself and the commitments it has made to the international community.

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