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Environment top of mind for African power

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The scramble to address Africa’s electricity supply backlog has entered a new phase, with significant benefits for developers, funders and communities, says ERM, the world’s leading sustainability consultancy.
Consultants at the consultancy’s Africa operations say until recently environmental and social (E&S) considerations might have been an after-thought, but increasingly get priority from developers eager to save time and money as well as the environment.
Johannesburg-based Alan Cochran, a senior ERM consultant, says the positive shift towards the front-end loading of projects has been evident for at least two to three years and is noticeable at projects in West, East and Southern Africa.
“Previously, we would have been brought on board late in the project development process,” he says. “The new trend is for us to form part of the project development team from the start and take a key role in initial site selection in order to ensure that E&S issues are adequately considered.”
African governments with limited capital are looking to partner with independent power producers (IPPs) in a bid to create desperately needed generation and distribution capacity; notably in solar energy.
“The size of the backlog and the potential for profitable partnerships make power provision an area of significant opportunity for developers,” says Cochran.
“In the recent past, this sometimes led to a race to be first off the mark. The selection of solar installation sites might then be undertaken with sole reliance on technical factors.
“Hard-won experience has led to a change of priorities. Ignore E&S concerns and you may have trouble accessing international funding. You could also face expensive delays or have to retrofit some elements of the project in order for the project to meet lender standards.”
Institutions such as the International Finance Corporation (the World Bank’s private investment arm) insist on best practice site selection. Media and NGO scrutiny of social and biodiversity impacts can also create challenges for projects that give insufficient regard to E&S factors.
“A more holistic approach results in widespread benefits,” notes Cochran. “Developers can make properly informed site selection decisions. Access to funding improves, so does scheduling and the prospect of a prompt return on investment.”
Typically, developers and their partners begin site selection with a comprehensive appraisal of factors affecting the potential power generation capacity of solar power installations.
This starts with the modelling of solar irradiance for a given area of interest and the mapping of existing network infrastructure, followed by grid capacity assessments to determine optimal plant sizes at various locations and technical and financial assessments of different methods of connecting to existing networks.
Cochran says special attention is given at ERM to the development of a GIS-based E&S constraints model, using multiple spatial data layers focused on issues such as land cover, protected areas, settlements, rivers, rail lines and roads.
“In addition, alternative sites must be thoroughly investigated,” says Cochran. “Firstly because non-technical constraints may mean a preselected site is not necessarily the best business option, and, secondly, to demonstrate that the preferred site has been selected appropriately, using internationally recognised best practice accepted by financial institutions, and is indeed a suitable site.
“Tools like satellite imagery and mapping software have been available for some time. Real value is added when you know which tools to apply at what time in the project life cycle. The key is knowing where to look deeper and apply additional resources.
“We now put these skills to work much earlier in the process … with efficiencies and benefits for all parties.”