5 September 2008

Namibia: Nation Switches On to Solar Power

THE huge increases in electricity tariffs and soaring fuel prices experienced recently are causing many Namibians to rethink their energy needs and where to cut costs in order to save money as southern Africa is also experiencing a power crunch due to increased demand for electricity against dwindling supply capacity.

Namibia has one of the best solar regimes in the world with some 3 300 hours of sunshine per year.

This gives it a potential average annual solar radiation value exceeding six kilowatt hours per square metre per day.

The challenge is to tap this potential to provide efficient energy supply from the sun at lower cost.

It would create an industry for solar energy technologies resulting in employment creation.

Yet high import costs and tariffs for solar panels and other energy-efficient equipment and appliances have put a dampener on this niche sector.

"I had to pay 25 per cent import duty on an energy-efficient fridge for our office plus 15 per cent value-added tax, so the price was upped by 40 per cent due to the taxes slapped on the fridge," a local architect told The Namibian recently, "Government should provide rebates on duties and taxes on all energy-saving and alternative energy equipment to enable Namibians to save electricity."

Namibia's power usage rises to 450 megawatt (MW) at peak demand.

Installed local capacity is 384 MW and imports from mainly South Africa can be as high as 200 MW.

"The Ministry of Mines and Energy [MME] has embarked on a five-year renewable energy master plan, which started in 2005," Joseph Iitha, its Permanent Secretary said recently at an energy conference.

"Assisted by the United Nations Development Programme, we are increasing public awareness on the use of solar energy and biogas."

The MME runs a programme to remove the barriers that still exist to promote the use of renewable energies from the wind, the sun and waste to produce bio gas for cooking and heating.

Solar cooking stoves are already produced in northern Namibia.

Solar water heating (SWH) via electric geysers constitutes the highest portion of electricity generated from renewable energy in Namibia.

The use of SWH will continue to increase largely due to the government directive in August 2007.

The Ministry of Mines and Energy stipulated the use of SWH technology in all government and buildings of state-owned enterprises.

A recent study on energy efficiency in Namibia revealed that 22 per cent or 100 MW of electricity used is required to heat water geysers.

"An investment of N$433 million is needed in order to achieve a domestic penetration of solar water heaters of 33 per cent over ten years.

If this measure is implemented it is estimated to reduce the demand by about 52 MW."

This means if a third of all private houses would install solar water geysers on their roofs, the 52 MW saved would also reduce electricity imports.

Driving through Windhoek, the observant visitor will spot a sudden increase of SWHs on roofs as consumers are encouraged by special loans available from the MME and some commercial banks at low interest rates to buy and install them in their homes.

"The loan repayment of about N$300 per month equals the savings on the monthly electricity bill," a bank official told The Namibian.

"The loan is paid off with ease."

A consideration mulled is to include the cost of solar water heaters in housing loans for home owners who either want to replace the old energy-consuming geysers or - when building a new house - to install the solar geysers right from the start.

Most houses of Arandis in the Erongo Region were equipped with SWHs almost 30 years ago, saving households thousands of dollars over the years.

The student hostels of the Vocational Training College in Windhoek and of the Polytechnic are fully equipped with rows of SWHs on their rooftops, cutting their municipal bills considerably.

The Polytechnic also houses the Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Institute, which was established with the blessing of the MME.

It is mainly funded by Denmark.

It conducts surveys on energy use and promotes savings on electricity usage.

There is also a plan by private entrepreneurs and farmers to establish a huge solar energy plant in southern Namibia, where the highest amount of sun radiation is measured.

"Just 64 square kilometres covered with solar panels would provide enough electricity for Namibia, the size of an average farm of 6 400 hectares and we would be self-sufficient and need not rely on electricity imports any more," a commercial farmer in the south of the country told The Namibian recently.

Another project, the construction of a solar or 'green tower', is also on the drawing board by a group of engineers.

The tower would be more than one kilometre high and collects hot air sucked up through its chimney, causing large turbines at its base to rotate and generate power.

A group of German and South African engineers and academics gave a day-long presentation on the Green Tower Project to local engineers, technicians and energy experts last year.

According to Professor Wilfried Kraetzig, a smaller model plant was run successfully in Spain for seven years.

"A proper green tower power plant of 400 MW electricity needs to be 1,5 km high and 280 metres in diameter - but nowhere in the world has such a high structure ever been built," he admitted.

To collect sufficient hot air, a circle of 37 square kilometres with glass panels - which are heated by the sun during the day - would have to be constructed around the tower base.

They would not lie on the ground, but would be about on a three-metre-high platform and collect sunlight to add to electricity generation.

"Underneath the glass roof one can grow large-scale vegetables and grapes, since the total roofed area would cover 3,7 hectares like a huge greenhouse," his colleague, Professor Reinhard Harte, added.

"Growing flowers for export and fish farming (aquaculture) would also be a possibility," he said.

At the tower base 32 turbines would be installed and driven by the "hot air" to generate electricity.

If constructed in the Namib Desert, close enough to allow for a pipeline to the Atlantic Ocean, seawater can be extracted and desalinated to allow large-scale agriculture such as crop farming.

According to Harte, all these diversified activities would create about 25 000 jobs.

One solar chimney project would cost about N$6 billion, including a turbine manufacturing plant and a glass factory to produce the thousands of glass panels needed for the collector platform.

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