Namibia: Largest Solar Plant in S. Hemisphere Planned

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.

4 Responses

  1. Thanks for this. I think Namibia’s plans in both solar and nuclear have to be understood in the context of the regions increasing economic integration. South Africa is the giant energy consumer there, as it puts more and more formerly excluded poor people on the grid to cut down on pollution and as industrial energy consumption rises. In recent years, SA has experienced rolling blackouts as demand exceeds supply.

    It is perfectly conceivable that Namibia can enrich its own uranium assuming this is a joint effort between Namibia and South Africa, which has extensive experience in nuclear energy (and nuclear weaponry until that system was dismantled). South Africa, however, has scaled back its nuclear power ambitions because of concerns with security — its power plants were attacked by ANC guerrillas during apartheid and by criminal gangs in the post apartheid era. My guess is that South Africa still wants to expand nuclear power, but it just doesn’t want those power plants in South Africa, and if Namibia is on the same grid, it might as well put those plants there. Namibia looks like it is planning to be a subcontinental energy exporter — solar, nuclear and uranium. Tiny mountainous Lesotho’s highlands water project will export hydro electric power to South Africa and export fresh water to the Johannesburg-Pretoria area, while also supplying 100% of Lesotho’s energy needs. With Angolan petroleum, South African and Botswanan coal, Lesotho hydro electric and Namibian solar and nuclear, the region, which increasingly looks like a super state, will have a secure energy future, but it will struggle to have a carbon neutral one.

  2. HamdenRice’s comments are very, very interesting! Current US partisan hysterics aside, the world needs to price carbon output impacts into our economies. That is going to hit the developing world very, very hard. Regions that are building themselves up can’t avoid using fossil fuels for power generation currently/initially, but those that are making the transition away from carbon-based power sources will be well ahead of the competition. A combination of traditional non-carbon power (nuclear and dam-hydro) along with newer renewables (wind, solar, geothermal and tidal power) will put them well ahead of nations and regions that are dependent on oil and coal. (Natural gas is in both mixes, of course, but its future seems complicated.)

    It’s great that these types of solar projects are going ahead, and very interesting that this is being done by a US based firm. We’ll see if US engineering and construction management is also part of the deal. (US engineering firms can have a tough time competing with European firms, which directly and indirectly receive more government support.)

    But…. Prof. Cole wrote:
    “That is, when expanded this solar plant will generate about the same amount of energy as a typical nuclear plant.”

    I’m having a hard time finding more detailed information about this project. I would have to assume that the 1GW capacity would be peak capacity. That is very different than a nuclear plant – nuclear power is “slow, steady” baseline power – you can’t vary the plant’s output much. That’s fine, because it plays the vital role on the grid of providing that, well, baseline of power. Integrating intermittent sources (wind, solar and tidal) is more difficult because with electricity, variations in demand on the grid must be matched by variations in power supply essentially immediately.

    What I was hoping to find out about this proposed project was whether or not it includes any sort of storage, either at the site of generation or elsewhere on the grid. Hydro pump storage would be the most likely.

    (Hydro pump storage involves two reservoirs – one high and one low. When excess electricity is available – such as during the day with solar – power is used to pump water uphill from the low reservoir to the high one. When there is more demand for power, water is released from the high reservoir to run downhill through turbines to generate the required power. There is some inefficiency to this system, but it’s the closest thing we have to a national grid scale “battery”.)

    With a large pump storage component of the project, then the solar would be able to provide power to the grid pretty much 24 hours a day, with some ability to vary output to match changes in demand. But… the effective capacity of the system would be some fraction of it’s peak output capacity. That isn’t a bad thing at all, it’s just reality.

    We need to avoid an apples-to-oranges comparison, such as comparing peak output from a solar plant to the baseline output from a nuclear plant. They each have roles to play in our transition away from fossil fuel based electricity generation. And eventually we will be able to transition away from nuclear power. But in order to do so, we need to be forthright about the characteristics of the different components of our power systems.

  3. Hi Juan, this is really great news, thanks for highlighting this.

    Firstly, one note about the opening line of the article – “in the southern African country of Namibia” – Namibia is not a South African country, it’s an African country which lies to the North.

    Secondly, I’ve often thought that Namibia and it’s climate make it a great destination for solar power initiatives – the whole of Africa stands to benefit from such large scale investments both in terms of job creation and in the supply of energy to countries which are currently struggling to meet the demand.

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