Last month, I went to a talk by someone who I’m surprised I 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-megawatt solar PV plant is 60 kilometers east of Kigali, Rwanda. It came on-line in February 2015 in record time -- just one year after the power-purchase agreement was finalized -- and having stayed within 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 his name. 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 on-line, 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 megawatts. True, this is a pretty small plant relative to other grid-scale solar projects. For example, South Africa has a 175-megawatt plant, and the U.S. has 17 grid-scale solar PV plants over 100 megawatts.
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 100-watt system. This means that Ignite has installed .1 megawatts, 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 kilowatts. That’s 1/100th the size of Gigawatt Global, and they’ve been around for several years.
These comparisons are based on capacity, not energy. I’m guessing that central stations deliver much 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 doctoral 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.
A plant of 8.5 megawatts is huge for Rwanda. Total installed generating capacity in Rwanda was less than 150 megawatts in 2015, and Gigawatt Global’s installation increased it by more than 5 percent. This is like increasing the U.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 in the country.
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 the U.S.-centric focus. If this is true, grid-scale solar in sub-Saharan Africa will get more attention as U.S.-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.
However, 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 consumption. The majority of new demand will come from existing users in grid-connected areas, as well as migration to these areas. 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. For one, we are likely wrong if we think 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 have argued, 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 the ambitious entrepreneurs and foundation funding follow the media, we’re ignoring the most important part of the picture. And if policymakers follow the media’s lead and emphasize off-grid solutions, we’re overlooking much higher impact on-grid solutions.
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 the Cora Jane Flood Professor of Business Administration and Faculty Director at the Haas School of Business at the University of California at Berkeley.
Reprinted with permission. Original column appears here.