Khartoum — Sudan was one of the first nations to understand the importance of renewable energy.
In this bid, the country took good steps in early 1980s for the development of rural areas via the technologies of solar and wind energies.
But the rapture caused by the exploitation of oil in the 1990s and the absence of strategic thinking during the ousted government has distracted the authorities from going ahead with the national project for the exploitation of renewable energies, save for individual voluntary and businesses efforts.
Fortunately, the country is now witnessing a comeback to solar energy as it is an effective tool to drive development, employment, and stability - particularly in rural and agriculture-focused communities.
First, it is an alternative to fossil fuels, so importation and transport challenges are avoided, environmental benefits provided, and ongoing fuel costs eliminated. Second, it can be established in most locations independent from the main grid, reducing infrastructure costs and making it useful in temporary locations like refugee camps. Third, while requiring an upfront investment, solar technology costs continue to decrease. Finally, it requires high sunshine hours - something Sudan has in abundance.
Sudan's geographical location between the two tropics has furnished it with an excellent supply of sun radiation that amounts to 6 kilowatt -hour, per square meter, and a period of ten hours of sunshine per day; in addition to the availability of other helping substances like silicon, in particular in the Nile State, Kordofan and the Red Sea regions.
But the amount exploited from this potential is estimated at between 1-1.5 percent.
So, what are the challenges that hinder the required utilization of solar energy in Sudan?
Dr. Nazar Gasim, the Director of the Solar Energy Institute of the National Center for Research, said there is a hoard of challenges that can be divided into three axes, with each axis complementing the other.
The first axis is represented into policies, plans, legislations and laws countries that wish to delve into this domain should take into consideration.
These countries have to draw clear-cut plans specifying the areas in which they intend to use solar energy.
The second axis deals with the economics of solar energy, because utilizing this energy is a promising area and the cost of solar energy is high and needs government support.
The last axis is related to research and studies that should be given utmost attention.
Does solar energy require more funding than the other sources of energy?
Dr. Gasim said "compared to generation of energy from fossil fuel, the generation of electricity from solar energy is less cost-wise because there is no worth mentioning operational cost as compared with the other traditional energies.
Engineer Yasir Abdalla, the Director of Renewable Energy at the Ministry of Energy, asserts that: Some may think that the production of electricity from solar energy is expensive, in particular at the building stage. But if we compare this with the cost of a diesel engine for instance, we might find out that the cost of a solar system is higher. But the diesel engine's life span is less and the facility requires continuous maintenance. In comparison, the solar system works for about twenty years without any production cost worth mentioning.
Engineer Hassan Abdalla, owner of Solarman Company that specializes in solar energy says the cost of an electric kilowatt produced by solar energy is far less than that produced by other resources. In the United Arab Emirates the kilowatt price has gone down to 1.6 cents while Sudan imports a kilowatt of electricity from Ethiopia at about 4.5 cents. But the removal of solar energy from the list of strategic commodities has caused the design of its systems to be very expensive due to the high customs duties.
In view of these merits of solar energy, how fare the government steps towards this energy?
Engineer Yasir Abdalla says "In 2017 the use of solar energy started in small projects in the western towns of Alfashir and Alde'ain, each at an output of five megawatt, in a bid to reduce day electric overloading and to mitigate the fuel crisis in those two areas of Darfur region.
However, says Eng. Abdalla, there is a more ambitious project: Encouraging the citizens to use solar energy at their domiciles, a matter that could save money for the citizens and reduce pressure upon the electric grid.
He said this project virtually needs big technical effort, although its benefits are far bigger and encourage its implementation at a short while. Part of the required technical amendments would be in the electric meter. In addition to calculate the consumtion cost, the meter should calculate both consumption and production. A committee was launched to determine the specifications which will be explained to the public, to be followed with a pilot project.
A solar lab, funded by the UNDP, Sudanese Standards and Metrology Organization and Ministry of Energy and Mining, was launched last year. The lab provides testing and certification services for second-hand imported solar energy technology, ensuring the quality and longevity of imported solar systems and reducing risk to customers.
Also, in November 2020 Sudan and the United Arab Emirates signed a memo of understanding for the production of 500 megawatt of solar electric power. The Gulf state, represented in one of its specialized companies, would import, build, install and operate the stations for twenty years and train the local workers.
Estimates put Sudan's electric needs at about 3800 megawatt at the moment. Existing electric supplies reach about 40 percent of the population and there are problems of inadequate electric supply with recurring outages that continue for long hours.
What about the private sector's experiments in the domain of solar energy?
Owner of Solarman, Engineer Hassan, said the activity of his company had started in 1996 and that they cover most spheres of solar energy, like the provision of current stabilizers, batteries and battery chargers and plates. The company also designs multi-purpose systems of solar energy and helps the agents to cover the needs of individuals in drinking water wells, child vaccination against diseases and the lighting of roads.
"The turn towards solar energy is now very high, in particular from farm owners who seek to avoid recurrent power outages. Even the citizens are turning towards"solar energy to light their homes" added Hassan .
He is, however, unhappy over the removal of solar energy apparatus from the list of strategic commodities, a matter that raised their cost a great deal due to high custom tariffs.
He proposes a reasonable levy to be added for urban electric consumers and the investment of the sums thus collected in the provision of solar power to "the real producers" in rural areas.
The area of solar energy is now attracting foreign investors. Part of this was when an Indian firm offered to invest in solar energy within a smart partnership with an international power group.
Last month a delegation from the Indian firm discussed the matter with the Minister of Investments and International Cooperation, Dr. Alhadi Mohamed Ibrahim.
The launch of an integrated solar energy and transformers plant in Khartoum State are on the table of the Indian firm and its partners.
Minister Ibrahim said on the occasion that his country encourages investments in renewable sources of energy and that the country was seeking a radical solution for the power problems through projects to be funded along the BOT (Build-operate-transfer) system.
How does the UNDP, as the UN's main development agency, help Sudan in this concern?
UNDP Sudan Resident Representative Mr. Yuri Afanasiev said "while we are not in the business of city-scale solar energy plants, we are aggressively working to attract support for community-level projects - like our work in Darfur, Eastern Sudan, and Northern State.
Replacing diesel generators with solar power for irrigated agriculture has been highly successful. During a trial in Northern State, food and cash crop production grew 47%, high-value crops like cotton and watermelon were expanded or introduced, and crop loss due to unpredictable fuel shortages was eliminated. As a result, thanks to generous support, the Global Environmental Facility (GEF) is subsidizing 1,440 solar-powered water pumps in Northern State, the Korea International Cooperation Agency is providing 450 in River Nile, and the African Development Bank is providing 1,170 in West and North Kordofan".
Mr. Afanasievt added that "at a community level, UNDP, UNICEF, UNFPA and the Government have worked across Sudan to deploy thousands of solar systems. In Darfur, UNDP supported solar energy in 464 community service centers including schools, health centers, vaccine fridges, and rural hospitals. This assisted hundreds of thousands with access to energy and improved basic services, particularly women and young people. Similarly, we have provided solar systems for a range of smaller facilities and uses - like livelihood hubs across Darfur which provide employment training, water yards to improve access to clean water for people, livestock, and irrigation, and solar streetlights for return villages."
The UNDP is also currently testing new solutions - like solar-powered mobile clinics, cellular towers, water purification systems, 'mini-grids' to support small commercial operations, and solar lamps, radios and chargers for displaced and rural communities.
In Eastern Sudan's refugee camps and surrounding local communities, solar cookers are being provided by the agency to reduce cutting of local forests for firewood, solar streetlights installed to improve security, and small panels distributed to allow cellphone charging. These are all practical solutions that can be deployed in most areas in Sudan.
Mr. Afanasiev said for creating an enabling environment they also assist the Government with policy, legislation, research and solutions, and support the private sector to ensure solar is commercially viable.
"We are looking at several ways to make this happen. This includes promoting solar as a potential investment for international and national investors and donor institutions, including via the global Climate Investment Platform (CIP), and - building on our experience in Northern State - exploring ways to support subsidized, low-cost solar systems nationwide" he said.
What advice would the UNDP provide to decision-makers in this regard?
Mr. Afanasiev advised the Sudan's government to continue its current direction of expansion of renewable energy solutions and continue efforts to make solar technology as accessible as possible. The cost should be reduced by tax and duty exemptions. "The private sector has a critical role to play here and can be enabled through supportive legislation and regulation." he said.