“Arise, shine for your light has come,” reads a sign at the entrance to the first major solar power farm in east Africa.
The 8.5 megawatt (MW) power plant in Rwanda is designed so that, from a bird’s-eye view, it resembles the shape of the African continent. “Right now we’re in Somalia,” jokes Twaha Twagirimana, the plant supervisor, during a walkabout of the 17-hectare site.
The plant is also evidence, not only of renewable energy’s increasing affordability, but how nimble it can be. The $23.7m (£15.6m) solar field went from contract signing to construction to connection in just a year, defying sceptics of Africa’s ability to realise projects fast.
The setting is magnificent amid Rwanda’s famed green hills, within view of Lake Mugesera, 60km east of the capital, Kigali. Some 28,360 solar panels sit in neat rows above wild grass where inhabitants include puff adders. Tony Blair and Bono have recently taken the tour.
From dawn till dusk the computer-controlled photovoltaic panels, each 1.9 sq metres, tilt to track the sun from east to west, improving efficiency by 20% compared to stationary panels. The panels are from China while the inverters and transformers are from Germany.
The plant’s construction has created 350 local jobs and increased Rwanda’s generation capacity by 6%, powering more than 15,000 homes. All this is crucial in an economy that, 21 years after the genocide, is expanding fast and aims to give half its population access to electricity by 2017.
Twagirimana, one of five full-time staff on-site, said: “The Rwandan government is in desperate need of energy. In 2013 they only had 110 megawatts. They wanted solar to increase capacity.”
The government agreed to a joint bid by Gigawatt Global, Norfund and Scatec Solar, backed by Barack Obama’s Power Africa initiative. Construction began in February 2014 and was finished by July. “It’s the fastest project in Africa.”
Its first year produced an estimated 15 million kilowatt hours, sending power to a substation 9km away, which has prompted mixed views in local communities. Twagirimana, 32, explained: “The neighbours say they want energy direct from here because they think it would be cheaper. It’s not true. We sell to the utility. Even our building gets power from the grid.”
The solar field is linked to a central server in Oslo and can be monitored remotely via the internet. Twagirimana believes it could be a template for the continent. “We have plenty of sun. Some are living in remote areas where there is no energy. Solar will be the way forward for African countries.”