From hip-hop star Akon training African solar engineers to remote villages abandoning kerosene in favor of solar LED lanterns, there's been a lot of talk about how solar could help Africa leapfrog over fossil fuels while still bringing electricity to those who don't yet have it.
Often, much of the focus is on distributed renewables — meaning solar lanterns and phone chargers and/or small-scale rooftop solar power arrays on individual homes and businesses. Until the industry cracks the holy grail of affordable energy storage, however, there's still much to be said for the economies of scale and the reliability of a supply that can be achieved by centralized, grid-based generation, at least where the infrastructure exists to make that possible.
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Here, too, solar can play its part, and it has many advantages over conventional energy sources like coal or gas. Take Rwanda's first utility-scale solar power plant, built by renewable energy multinational Gigawatt Global, which single-handedly represented a 6 percent increase in the country's energy generating capacity.
Not only is the 8.5-megawatt solar farm a substantial addition to Rwanda's generating assets (it powers about 15,000 Rwandan homes), but the speed at which it was deployed — the entire project went from contract signing to grid interconnection in just 12 months — is a tangible example of just how fast renewables can be put into action transforming lives, creating jobs and doing so with a fraction of the environmental impact of previous fossil fuel-based electrification strategies.
With this project successfully completed, the hope is that it will provide both inspiration and concrete lessons for other would-be developers looking to bring clean energy to underserved populations. Indeed, it's already hosting visits from policy makers, development workers and energy companies, not to mention U.S. government delegations and singer/activist Bono.
In an interview with The Guardian, Gigawatt Global's co-founder Chaim Motzen said he firmly believes this will be the first project among many:
"Rwanda has an excellent business environment — no corruption — and that played a role. I also think they were serious about wanting to move quickly. We had good partners on the ground. It's now being used as a model: you can do energy deals quickly and get things done. It's a catalyst for future projects in Rwanda and hopefully not just in Rwanda to inspire others to do what we're doing."
Given that some campaigners claim universal energy access could be achieved 10 times cheaper and twice as fast with renewables compared to fossil fuels, we can expect to see growing interest and investment in projects like this in the coming decades.