US-based SSI Energy Solutions plans to construct the largest solar power plant in the southern hemisphere in the southern African country of Namibia (population 2 million). The plant is expected to cost $1.6 to $2 billion US to construct. Namibia typically has 300 days of sunshine a year.
Namibia is heavily dependent on imported coal, which it cannot always acquire from neighbors in the desired quantities. Ground will be broken on the solar plant in January and it has a two-year completion timeline. It will initially generate 500 megawatts, but over time its capacity will be doubled to a gigawatt. That is, when expanded this solar plant will generate about the same amount of energy as a typical nuclear plant. But it will be much cheaper to build, and far, far cheaper to fuel and operate, nor will it produce toxic waste that lasts for centuries and cannot safely be disposed of.
Namibia also hopes to build a controversial nuclear power plant, scheduled to be completed in 2018, and the country has uranium mines and is an exporter of that metal. Namibia says, pretty unbelievably, that it hopes to enrich its own uranium to the 3.5 percent level needed to run a nuclear power plant. The nuclear project has been criticized as extremely expensive ($15 billion), with nuclear plants costly to maintain even after built. And there are fears of the toxic nuclear waste ultimately harming Namibians’ health.
Namibia had been a colony of Germany and then from World War I a colony of neighboring South Africa. It became independent in 1990 and has a population of 2 million and a relatively stable parliamentary regime.
Its major exports include copper, uranium, fish, meat and grapes, and it has a tourism industry oriented to the middle and high end of the market. The Eurozone crisis has hurt Namibia’s economy this year. About 13% of its gross domestic product is generated by industry, which requires more electricity generation.
If the solar plant is built as quickly and inexpensively as now planned, it is possible that it will simply displace the nuclear plant, which might then never get built. Competitive solar and wind energy will increasingly be chosen over coal and nuclear by developing countries, since the plants will be less expensive to build than nuclear ones, and the upkeep and security issues are not nearly as pressing.