Weekend read: Building to last in the global south

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With 760 million people worldwide still without access to electricity, it is of great importance that utility scale solar and storage projects can be installed in regions with little renewables capacity and limited energy access.

The exponential growth of PV in the last decade is undeniable with the International Renewable Energy Agency estimating global solar capacity more than doubled between 2017 and the end of 2021, to 843 GW. But that growth has not been evenly spread. Of the 195 countries recognised by the UN, fewer than 50 have 1 GW of solar generation capacity. China, the US, Japan, Germany, and India account for 69% of the world’s solar. Africa and South America, which together occupy a third of global landmass, have less than 4%.

Lessons learned

To deploy solar successfully in new markets, we must learn from past mistakes. More than four decades ago, plans were laid to install solar-powered water pumps in developing countries. Numerous projects failed despite high-quality equipment that was appropriately specified, manufactured, and installed.

A lack of supporting infrastructure, trained maintenance technicians, access to spare parts, and follow-up visits were to blame. Although solar can be counted on as a source of electricity, and DC-powered pumps are reliable, some of the systems dropped into such regions cannot be expected to carry on functioning without issues.

The same was true of solar-powered vaccine refrigerators planned for remote, unelectrified villages by several programs in the 1980s. Ultra-efficient fridges were deployed alongside solar and energy storage systems in a program sponsored by NASA, the Pan American Health Organisation and the now-defunct Solar Power Corporation division of Exxon Enterprises. It installed some of them in health clinics in Guyana, Guatemala, Ecuador, Peru, Colombia, Ivory Coast, and The Gambia.

While many performed vital service, failures of any kind were not addressed by program support, ongoing monitoring, and intervention. It takes more than equipment deployment to succeed.

Keys for success

To ensure the success of future solar deployment in the developing world, we could consider a few key steps.

  • Take a whole-lifecycle approach, from application requirements to specifications and design, equipment selection, logistics, installation, training, spare parts, monitoring, operations, and maintenance and, ultimately, decommissioning. Consider that the infrastructure required might not exist.
  • Consider terrain, soil and weather conditions, and extreme weather events when designing projects. Local codes and conditions may present unique challenges.
  • Choose components wisely and ensure they have a strong record in conditions similar to where they will be deployed. Consider finance-body requirements and supplier traceability; transparency; and environmental, social, and corporate governance performance, including carbon footprints. Factor in supplier ability to service target regions.
  • When selecting engineering, procurement, and construction contractors, choose companies with a track record in the region, ideally in solar. Having a solid pipeline of future projects can enhance contracting opportunities and minimize risk. Schedule slippage, while a global problem, might necessitate bespoke milestone, date, and corruption-related contract clauses.

Component quality

In terms of manufacturing quality, experienced buyers often engage third-party inspectors to audit component factories. That could mean leftover, under-inspected products for inexperienced buyers, so consider a quality assurance plan for key components that rivals state-of-the-art programs.

To address the question of installation quality, be prepared for a possible absence of well-trained local technicians and support personnel. Meticulous construction and commissioning oversight by highly trained and experienced staff is essential. Commissioning can be carried out concurrent with construction and should include full-system tests, including verification that monitoring systems and sensors are working properly.

To ensure an all-encompassing support approach that bridges the gap while a local or regional solar and storage ecosystem develops, an upfront operations plan is recommended for at least a year, until the project accumulates a favourable track record. Suppliers play a pivotal role by storing spare parts locally, identifying and collaborating with local contractors, and establishing flexible warranty terms. These measures ensure ongoing technical assistance and troubleshooting in the early stages.

As noted in a report by Vera Songwe, Nicholas Stern, and Amar Bhattacharya – about financing climate action projects – these programs may face a higher hurdle rate due, in part, to greater financing cost. That provides all the more reason to take the extra steps to ensure a project is successful.

Drawing upon past lessons, we should not underestimate the challenges of establishing a solar power plant and keeping it operating safely and within specifications – especially when a project is unprecedented in a region or lacks the infrastructure and resources that many of us take for granted. A comprehensive plan that genuinely addresses the points raised above is highly recommended – essential, as far as I’m concerned – to ensure success.

Many countries still bear the remnants of solar projects that failed to fully live up to expectations. Today’s renewable energy developers and financiers have the opportunity to learn from the past and positively affect the lives of millions. Clean Energy Associates’ core purpose is to “create a better future.” Bringing the benefits of solar power at large scale to the entire globe is an essential element of our collective “better future.”

About the author: Paul Wormser is VP for technology at Clean Energy Associates, where he is responsible for supply chain management and the technology and quality team.

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