Unlocking renewable energy potential in Eswatini

By Rodney Carval
This article is part of a series focusing on the COP26 global climate summit in the UK

The global energy sector is a major contributor to climate change, accounting for more than two-thirds of global greenhouse gas emissions. In Eswatini, the energy sector accounts for 39% of the country’s total GHG emissions. Interestingly, the energy sector has not been spared by the impacts of  climate change. For example, storm and extreme weather events  damage  electricity transmission infrastructure whilst erratic seasonal rainfall negatively impacts  hydro electricity generation. This costs the energy sector large amounts of money to replace and repair whilst droughts pose a threat to the future of hydro generated power. Eswatini is not self-sufficient in electricity production or liquid petroleum fuels and imports about 80% of its electricity demand from South Africa whose power is mostly sourced from coal. 

Renewable energy presents an opportunity for Eswatini to take a bold step towards reducing overall GHG emissions and contributing meaningfully to the global fight against climate change. Renewable energy is not only friendlier to the planet but has the potential to position the country in a much more secure place when it comes to energy security. Whilst relying less on crumbling Eskom, the renewable energy sector will contribute towards much needed job creation in the country. 

According to the NDC, Eswatini recognises the need and importance of greening her energy sector and  clearly states the goal to increase the share of renewable energy to 50% in the electricity mix by 2030. Is it possible to achieve 100% renewables? Concerns about the transition to  renewable energy have mainly centred around the reliability of these sources.  The biggest question is “can renewables provide baseload energy?” Baseload refers to the minimum amount of electric power needed to supply the electrical grid at any given time. Coal power plants are designed to provide baseload energy with renewables providing the fluctuating needs. In many countries it has been proven that it is possible to provide baseload energy through energy storage technologies such as utility-scale battery storage systems that have typical storage capacities ranging from around a few megawatt-hours (MWh) to hundreds of MWh. This can be explored further in the context of Eswatini considering the renewable energy potential in the country. 

Eswatini has made strides towards transitioning the energy sector to a greater proportion of renewables. The National Energy Policy (2018) codifies the overall vision and required policy actions for the sustainable development of the Eswatini energy sector. This includes statements for improving energy security through diversification of and investment in domestic energy resources (including wind and solar), enabling private sector participation in energy investment and planning, technical capacity building in the electricity sector, and eradication of energy poverty through privately developed pay-as-you-go mini-grid systems within communities and towns. Specific to private sector engagement, Eswatini developed an Independent Power Producer Policy in 2015 which among other things promotes the deployment of IPP capacity to meet Eswatini’s electricity needs. The Ministry of Natural Resources and Energy (MNRE) through support from various international partners has piloted several applications of renewable energy in public institutions in the country. These applications include solar water heaters, solar water pumping solutions in schools and solar photovoltaic (PV) systems with battery banks in health centres. A 1MW solar PV system with a battery bank pilot to meet the energy needs of the RFM Hospital in the Manzini region was recently launched. The success of this project is expected to influence the greening of other health facilities in the country. 

The Eswatini Electricity Company (EEC) has also implemented solar PV projects. The first project is a 10MW solar PV farm feeding the utility grid in Lavumisa. The second pilot is an off-grid solution that involves the installation of solar PV stand alone or off-grid connection, where each household will have solar PV panels installed on the roof and wired to provide power totally independent from the EEC grid connection. The Eswatini Energy Regulatory Authority (ESERA) has made efforts to promote private investments by launching capacity procurement calls for 40 MW Solar PV and 40MW biomass. This is a similar approach to the South African Renewable Energy IPP Programme (REIPPP) that has resulted in the procurement of 6,500 MW of renewable energy since 2011. Unfortunately, the process has been slower in Eswatini. To date, there are no renewable energy installations under the 40 MW Solar PV procurement call made in 2019 despite the global explosion in solar installations. Something must be amiss with the ESERA offer that is preventing developers from taking advantage of the call. 

The potential for renewable energy to provide employment and business opportunities makes the green energy sector attractive. Every renewable energy project brings with it job opportunities from the installation phase to maintenance. Training of the youth on renewable energy and its operations could contribute towards tackling the unemployment challenge amongst young people in Eswatini. However, training of renewable energy technicians, system designers and maintenance crews is not currently available in Eswatini. This presents an opportunity for government and partners to introduce renewable energy courses and training at relevant institutions. Accredited Solar PV Service Technician Qualifications would equip many emaSwati with the skills needed to work in the renewable energy space.

One limiting factor in the uptake of solar PV systems is access to finance. To date retail banks don’t offer energy loans. The uptake of solar PV systems would also benefit from companies offering rent-to-buy systems for residential and commercial premises as it is the case in other countries in Sub-Saharan Africa. To date very few people have access to funding mechanisms for renewable energy investment. Retail banks will eventually see the opportunities arising from renewable energy loans, but until then lobbying is needed to make banks aware of the opportunities that exist within green energy financing.

Several private companies have installed decentralized solar photovoltaic systems with a total electricity capacity with the aim of ensuring private energy security in order to reduce their electricity bills. Companies such as United Plantations (Tambuti irrigation), LOGICO (refrigeration), Fridge Factory (production power), and Africa Chicks (chicken processors) amongst many have installed solar PV systems for their own electricity consumption. 

I would like to end by stating that whilst there are signs of transitioning towards renewable energy, there is a need for faster and scaling up of renewable energy projects in the country. We are simply not taking advantage of the benefits and opportunities renewable energy presents to us. The installed renewable energy capacity in the country is too far from our potential and targets but with every increase in grid supplied tariffs, the transition to renewables becomes a lot more attractive. That is why it will be important for the country’s COP representatives to seek support and assistance to overcome the above mentioned barriers and limitations.