Last month, I went to a talk by someone I surprisingly hadn’t heard of before. Yosef Abramowitz is an entrepreneur whose company, Gigawatt Global, just constructed and commissioned the largest solar power plant in East Africa. The 8.5 MW solar PV plant is 60 kilometers east of Kigali, Rwanda. It came online in February 2015 in record time – just one year after the power purchase agreement was finalized – and at its $24 million budget.
Yosef is a fascinating, driven entrepreneur. But, through my usual perusing of the energy trade press, I hadn’t come across him. I had heard vague references to a solar plant in East Africa from conversations, but quick Internet searches hadn’t turned anything up.
I just did a slightly more systematic search and confirmed that Abramowitz’s story hasn’t been widely covered.
For example, if I search on “Rwanda solar” on Greentech Media – my go-to site for industry news – I turn up three stories about off-grid solar. One focuses on Ignite Power and two on Off-Grid Electric (here and here). Greentech Media (GTM to insiders) has only an oblique mention of Gigawatt Global’s project with a link to a story in the Guardian.
When I searched on “Rwanda solar” at the Wall Street Journal I was told, “Sorry, no results found.” The New York Times has two hits since Gigawatt Global’s installation came online, but one describes solar dryers and pumps for farmers and the other discusses solar lamps. No mention of Gigawatt Global.
In general, my read of the energy press is that it’s disproportionately focused on the off-grid sector in the developing world. Why aren’t projects like Gigawatt Global’s getting more coverage?
Here are some possible explanations:
- It’s only 8.5 MW. True, this is a pretty small plant relative to other grid-scale solar projects. For example, South Africa has a 175 MW plant, and the US has 17 grid-scale solar PV plants over 100 MW.
But, I don’t think that explanation works for two reasons:
- Gigawatt Global is delivering orders of magnitude more solar power compared to the off-grid solar companies. For example, Ignite Power, which netted an entire article from GTM, provided 1,000 households with solar systems in 2015. I could not find any discussion of how big these systems are, but they’re described as powering, “some lights, a radio and a television, and cell phones.” Generously, let’s assume this is a 100W system. This means that Ignite has installed .1 MW, less than 1/50th of Gigawatt Global.
Powerhive, a company that installs solar mini-grid systems in rural Kenya, and has been in three GTM articles in the past three months, currently has installations in four villages amounting to 80 kW. That’s 1/100th the size of Gigawatt Global, and Powerhive has been around for several years.
These comparisons are based on capacity, not energy. I’m guessing that central stations deliver more energy per watt, since they don’t rely on individuals keeping the panels in good repair or putting them out when the sun is shining. A former Berkeley PhD student has found that some solar home systems aren’t outside in the middle of the day because farmers don’t want them stolen while they’re in the fields.
Sure, these companies are projected to grow, but Gigawatt Global should as well.
- 8.5 MW is a huge plant for Rwanda. Total installed generating capacity in Rwanda was less than 150MW in 2015, and Gigawatt Global’s installation increased it by more than five percent. This is like increasing the US’s solar capacity by a factor of 13.
- It’s in Rwanda. This might explain why the Wall Street Journal isn’t covering the sector in general, but the other outlets reported on the off-grid sectors there.
- It’s not a Silicon Valley company. Abramowitz is Israeli and his company is based in the Netherlands. It may simply be easier for reporters to bump into people who work at local companies, so this might explain a US-centric focus. If this is true, grid-scale solar in Sub-Saharan Africa will get more attention as US-based companies expand in the region.
- It’s grid-scale solar, not distributed. I think this is the most likely answer, but it’s useful to reflect on why this preference might exist. I can think of two reasons:
- It’s more exciting to report on a new kind of electricity system.
I could have asked the question why Kenya’s proposed Lamu coal power plant, which is poised to nearly double the country’s existing generating capacity, hasn’t been covered. But, fossil fuel plants have been built for decades, and, if we’re serious about addressing climate change, we can’t continue building them in the same way.
But, the leap from a fossil fuel driven grid to off-grid solar may be too far.
Projections suggest that only 10 percent of the growth in residential electricity consumption in Sub-Saharan Africa over the coming decades will be driven by off-grid consumers. The majority of new demand will come from existing users in grid-connected areas as well as migration to these areas and grid extensions. If we bring in commercial and industrial, this share goes up considerably.
- The poor, rural consumers targeted by off-grid solutions are seen as more deserving than the beneficiaries of the grid.
This is misleading for several reasons, which I’ve written about before (here, here and here). For one, we are likely wrong if we think that the only way to use electricity to help the people who currently don’t have it in their homes is by putting a solar panel on their roof. The rural poor need a lot of things, like good jobs, good health care and good education for their kids. Electricity is an important input into many of these things and doesn’t necessarily have to be at someone’s home to provide those benefits. As I argue here, things like solar lanterns and solar home systems don’t currently provide even the services households seem to want, let alone support a robust commercial and industrial sector.
There are certainly examples of the press covering the benefits of the grid. For example, The Economist had a recent piece that was largely about grid electricity. But, the coverage is disproportionately of the off-grid sector.
I’m not against solar home systems or solar lanterns. My concern is that those technologies are getting a disproportionate share of the media coverage relative to the potential benefits they can provide. If policymakers follow the media’s lead and emphasize off-grid solutions, we’re overlooking much higher impact on-grid solutions. And, if the ambitious entrepreneurs and funding follow the media, we’re ignoring the most important part of the picture.
To my mind, this is a huge omission. I hope we see more coverage of companies working on grid-scale solutions in the months to come.
Catherine Wolfram is Associate Dean for Academic Affairs and the Cora Jane Flood Professor of Business Administration at the Haas School of Business, University of California, Berkeley. She is the Program Director of the National Bureau of Economic Research's Environment and Energy Economics Program, Faculty Director of The E2e Project, a research organization focused on energy efficiency and a research affiliate at the Energy Institute at Haas. She is also an affiliated faculty member of in the Agriculture and Resource Economics department and the Energy and Resources Group at Berkeley.
Wolfram has published extensively on the economics of energy markets. Her work has analyzed rural electrification programs in the developing world, energy efficiency programs in the US, the effects of environmental regulation on energy markets and the impact of privatization and restructuring in the US and UK. She is currently implementing several randomized controlled trials to evaluate energy programs in the U.S., Ghana, and Kenya.
She received a PhD in Economics from MIT in 1996 and an AB from Harvard in 1989. Before joining the faculty at UC Berkeley, she was an Assistant Professor of Economics at Harvard.