Locals Question the Relevance of First Solar Power Plant in Soroti

Soroti Solar Plant. The first 10MW Solar Power Plant to be installed in Uganda in 2016. COURTESY PHOTO

In December 2016, the government of Uganda commissioned the first grid connected solar plant in Soroti district, located about 300 kilometers east of the capital, Kampala.

When the project that cost the government of Uganda and other partners up to a tune of US$19 million was launched in the electricity-starved rural part of the country, residents of Soroti were filled with hope that they could finally enjoy a more affordable, stable and clean power supply.

But today, residents of the nearby villages, surrounded by thatched huts, rivers and grasslands, wonder if the solar plant, which went into operation four years ago, will bring an end to their electricity woes.

Birigita Aleto, 70, sits next to her semi-permanent house, located a few meters away from the fence that secures a solar power plant in Opuyo village, Opuyo Sub County, Soroti district of eastern Uganda.

In 2015, the mother of nine children (only three still alive) gave authority to her son to sell one hectare of land for the solar plant to be constructed.

“I thought that it was a good idea to release some portion of the land because this project was not going to benefit only me, but the rest of the community,” said Aleto.

Aleto continued to say that when area leaders and officials from the Ministry of Energy and Access Power visited them in the community for consultations, they were told that they would be compensated for their land.

“They also told us that the project would also facilitate the construction of a borehole, a health center, open up community access roads for us and build a community school,” she said.

Birigita Aleto narrating to Noah Omuya about the Solar Plant in Opuyo village, Soroti district.

According to her, she also had hoped that she would now have easy access to power for lighting her house and other activities since the project was staged just a stone throw away from her compound.

“It is now four years since this project was launched and I am still wondering when I will also have power connected to my house,” lamented Aleto.

Rebecca Arayo, 63, a widow and resident in the area said that nothing has so far changed in her way of life.

“All I know is that we have a solar power plant in my village, but where that power is used from, I do not know,” she said.

Arayo, like any other person in the locality, still uses firewood for cooking, kerosene for lighting a lantern and she bought a mini- solar system (which cost her Ugx 40,000, about US$15) for charging her phone.

Rebecca Arayo explaining her concerns about the Soroti Power Plant

Consisting of 32,680 photovoltaic panels, the 10 megawatt facility was expected to generate clean, low-carbon and sustainable electricity to about 40,000 homes, schools and businesses in the area.

The 10 megawatt facility is made up of 32,680 photovoltaic panels, was developed under the Global Energy Transfer Feed-in Tariff (GET FiT), a dedicated support scheme for renewable energy projects managed by Germany’s KfW Development Bank, in partnership with Electricity Regulatory Authority (ERA) and funded by the governments of Norway, Germany, the United Kingdom and the European Union- Africa Infrastructure Trust Fund.

According to information available on Access Power official website, the GET FiT solar facility is equivalent to 8.7 million Euros in form of result-based premium payment per Kwh of delivered electricity.

The solar project is financed by a mix of debt and equity with the senior debt facility being provided by FMO, the Netherlands Development Bank, and the Emerging Africa Infrastructure Fund (EAIF).

It is estimated that the project will cut Uganda’s carbon emissions by 264,355 tons per annum and by adding 10MWp to Uganda’s national grid, the plant is benefiting up to about 40,000 people.

During the inauguration of the project, the State Minister for Energy, Simon Du Jang highlighted that the solar plant would stop further environmental degradation and grant citizens efficient and reliable energy. However, this optimism seems not to have been achieved almost five years later.

Almost all households in the 10 villages that surround the solar plant are still using fuel wood for cooking, and some at the nearby trading centres have installed mini-solar systems for lighting, charging of phones, operation of small salons and for powering of music systems played in bars.

A resident setting his mini solar system for charging lights, phones and radios. COURTESY PHOTO

George Michael Egunyu, the LCV Chairperson for Soroti district said that the local community has only benefited from the Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) activities.

“Those people said that they would dig a borehole for the community and indeed, they have done that. I have also recently gone to monitor what they (Access Power) are doing and found that they have already started constructing staff houses for teachers in Opuyo primary school,” said the Chairman.

Ms. Diana Naisuna Nambi, the Principal Communications Officer at the Electricity Regulatory Authority (ERA) confirmed that they have always received concerns from the locals in all the parts they have set up solar plants in the country.

She however explained that the energy generated in the solar plant is directly fed into the national power grid, meaning that the communities at the moment cannot get electricity directly from the solar plants.

Ms. Nambi however disclosed that the Authority and the Ministry of Energy and Mineral Development are drafting measures on how the community can directly get connected before power is taken to the main grid.

The fear

Mr. Egunyu also raised the fear that not enough sensitization was conducted in the community about the relationship between the solar energy and environment.

According to Mr Egunyu, during a prolonged dry season in 2019, locals ran to his office to complain that they feared the prolonged drought in the area might have been as a result of heat generated by the solar panels.

“I have not studied much about climate change but I think that, maybe people were not told the advantages and disadvantages of putting those solar plates there,” he said.

However, Ms. Nambi explained that the Electricity Regulatory Authority always conducts assessments for the possible impact of the installation of such a mega project in an area before any works are started.

She also added that the sensitization of the community is one of the Corporate Social Responsibilities that the project implementer is required to carry out.

Several efforts to have an interview with a representative of Access Power proved futile. However, residents of Opuyo village say that Access Power has installed a borehole for the community, graded two community access roads and has constructed two staff houses for Opuyo Primary school.

Dr. Tom Okurut, the Executive Director for National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) said that solar energy has the least negative impact on the environment compared to any other energy source.

“The sun provides a tremendous resource for generating clean and sustainable electricity without toxic pollution or global warming emissions,” Dr. Okurut said.

He however warned the public to desist from misuse of the environment in the name of fuel wood, building and baking of bricks.

Dr. Okurut said this is gradually affecting the environment and has influenced the increase of severe climatic impacts on the environment.

According to the National Forest Authority, Uganda has lost 63% of its forest cover due to tree-cutting for firewood, timber and charcoal in the past 25 years. The loss of these fragile ecosystems not only has serious implications on Uganda’s biodiversity, but also compromises the ability of the country to cope with the climate change.

The high rate of deforestation has led to habitat loss and species extinction, and soil degradation resulting in poor crop yield. Deforestation is also contributing to climate change effects and destabilizing water cycle leading to disappearance of local streams, frequent weather and climatic variability including droughts, interruptions of frequency and intensity of rains resulting into floods and landslides in the highland areas. This has affected crop and livestock yields hence livelihoods.

The Achievement

A ride along the trading centres of Opuyo, Awoja, Asukut, Television and Soroti City located about seven kilometers away from the plant, indicated that households, business structures, schools and health facilities are either connected to electricity or installed or installed solar systems for backup in case of load shedding.

Stephen Ageru, a business owner in Central Avenue, Soroti City, said he has noticed that load shedding is no longer as frequent as it used to be a few years ago, a thing he attributes to the power feed from solar.

“Whenever it was about to rain those days, everyone in this town knew that there would be no power in the area,” he said.

Ageru added that these days he can leave his shop open until late hours because he is certain that there is a high percentage of power not going off.

“What only makes me lock early these days is the issue of curfew time,” he added.

Uganda enforced curfew time from 9:00pm to 6:00 am as one of the security measures during the lockdown. This was aimed at reducing the easy spread of COVID-19 pandemic and preventing wrong doers from moving to cause harm during the night.

State of Solar Energy

Uganda’s Solar Energy production has continuously increased since 2016. By September 2020, the Country’s grid-connected Solar PhotoVoltaic portfolio now stands at 50 MW. This follows the addition of three more Power Plants after the 10 MWp Access Solar Plant in Soroti District.

Those added include the 10 MWp Tororo Solar North Plant in Tororo District, the 20 MWp Kabulasoke Solar Plant in Gomba District commissioned in 2016, 2017 and 2018, and the Bufulubi 10MWp Power Plant which was commissioned in 2019 and all the four Solar Plants are owned by the private sector.

According to the renewable energy policy of 2013, the country has a solar electricity potential of about 200MW, 1650MW from biomass, 800MW from peat, 2200MW from hydropower stations and 400MW from geothermal energy.

National Energy Distribution in Uganda by sector. Source: Electricity Regulatory Authority Statistics 2020.

Seeking to improve access to modern energy services for their population, the Government of Uganda has spelled out a number of targets and policies to help achieve this goal. Several of these plans include a provision for renewable and off-grid sources.

Under the Rural Electrification Strategy and Plan (RESP) (2013-2022), the Government of Uganda has set a target to increase rural electricity access to 22% by 2022 through a mix of grid and off-grid services. Furthermore, in the 2016/17 National Budget, the Government of Uganda declared that producers of solar, wind and geothermal energy will be allowed relief on VAT incurred on their business inputs, in order to reduce the cost of production of alternative sources of energy.

Despite an increase in grid electricity access over the last couple of years, a large number of the relatively widely dispersed rural population is unlikely to be able to access the national grid in the near term.

This leaves a viable space for off-grid energy solutions to play an important role in providing quick access to reliable and modern lighting and energy services to households.

Given this demand potential and Uganda’s reasonably stable business environment, several companies are looking to enter or establish themselves in the solar sector. Supporting this emerging market will be crucial in promoting its growth.

Mr. John Tumuhimise, the Assistant Commissioner at the Ministry of Energy and Mineral Development said the Ministry is collaborating with other government agencies such as the Ministry of Water and Environment in drafting policies and regulations that safeguard the environment.

According to the commissioner, renewable sources of energy are friendly and by promoting solar energy, the environment is preserved.

“Our core role as a Ministry of Energy and Mineral Development is to provide an enabling environment for investment,” Mr. Tumuhimise said.

Mr. John Tumuhimise, Assistant Commissioner- Ministry of Energy and Mineral Development, Uganda. PHOTO BY NOAH OMUYA.

He also highlighted that, with increasing population and development, Solar energy in Uganda is receiving increased energy demand which can only be met through exploring other alternative sources of energy rather than heavily relying on traditional sources like charcoal, gasoline firewood and hydropower.

According to the energy situation report, Uganda still meets more than 93% of its energy demand with biomass in the form of charcoal and firewood, 6% with fossil fuel combustion, and only 1% with electricity from hydro and fossil-fuelled thermal Power Plants.

Only about 15% of the population has access to electricity, and in rural areas, it’s only 7%. Majority of the population continue to rely on wood fuel and charcoal.

This has resulted in the depletion of the country’s forests and woodlands, and related health hazards.

A Step Forward For Clean and Affordable Energy

In July 2020, the Department for International Trade (DIT) at the British High Commission in Uganda, in collaboration with Innovate UK and the London Chamber of Commerce and Industry (LCCI) for the Energy Catalyst Round 8 (ECRP) programme, organized a virtual trade mission where the future of renewable energy was discussed.

ECRP is a competition that aims to support highly innovative and market-oriented energy solutions in any technology or sector in sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia or South-East Asia.

The Ugandan and British companies that participated in the online event believe that renewable energy could make a difference in many countries around the world and more specifically in developing countries as they have enormous potential. These sources of electricity are cheaper and competitive with fossil fuels.

This has come at a time when governments in the globe are struggling to enhance international cooperation to facilitate access to clean energy research and technology, including renewable energy, energy efficiency and advanced and cleaner fossil-fuel technology, and promote investment in energy infrastructure and clean energy technology by 2030.

Sustainable Development Goal 07 (Affordable and clean energy) targets to expand infrastructure and upgrade technology for supplying modern and sustainable energy services for all in developing countries, in particular least developed countries, small Island developing States, and land-locked developing countries, in accordance with their respective programmes of support.

H.E Rosa Malango the representative of the United Nations in Uganda, in her recent visit to Karamoja region, where the Soroti Power Plant feeds electricity too, said that Uganda is endowed with renewable energy resources for energy production and the provision of energy services.

H.E Malango called upon solar energy investors to opt to partner with the government to fund renewable energy specifically solar, noting that Uganda still needs to extend solar powered energy to the rural parts of the country.

The government has started various projects on solar energy production, though it is not able to meet the demand especially in all the rural areas of the country that are mostly not connected to national electricity grids.

In the rural region of Karamoja located in the far north part of the country, the government is partnering with International Development agencies to set up solar powered water generating systems and lighting in schools to promote hygiene and improve academic performance.

The country lies along the equator and has a very high potential for solar energy production.

Filing of this report was funded by Climate Tracker, as part of the assignments for the African Energy Investigative Journalism Fellowship, 2020.

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Noah Omuya

Noah Omuya is the founder and CEO of Aica Media and a two time winner of the Media Challenge Awards (The best feature story writer- 2018 and the best Climate Change Photography Award- 2019). He has a bachelors degree in Mass Communication from Kampala International University. He is also an alumni for; British Council Future News Worldwide Fellowship- 2020, Climate Tracker Energy Reporting Fellowship- 2020, InfoNile- Code for Africa Data Journalism Fellowship- 2020, the Media Challenge Fellowship, 2019 and British Council East Africa and Africa Writers Trust Master Class in Creative Writing- 2019. Omuya has specialized training in writing, strategic and multimedia communication, mainstream and online journalism, broadcast media and youth participatory radio, content development, and public relations. He is very much interested in sustainable development communication.

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