November 26, 2019 / 2:00 PM / 13 days ago

FEATURE-Energy-short South Sudan powers up - but with fossil fuels

JUBA, Nov 26 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - South Sudan, a vastly power-short country where most businesses and households rely on diesel generators to keep things running, has opened a new fossil fuel power plant - one it is touting as a green solution for residents.

The government and construction company said the plant will provide “much cleaner air” for residents of the capital as it displaces thousands of polluting small generators.

Right now, “every household, every business has a generator running 24 hours to supply electricity. Now bringing all these in one pool ... the city will be much cleaner,” said Meron Tekie Ezra, managing director of construction and development for Ezra Group, the Eritrean firm that built the 33-megawatt plant.

The plant, which opened last week, will serve about 100,000 households and is the first phase in a larger plan to bring 100 megawatts of new power to the world’s newest country by the end of 2021.

President Salva Kiir called the plant a milestone toward achieving dreams of greater development for the nation, one of the world’s poorest.

“Electricity is regarded as one of the most serious business constraints. This is a problem that this project aims to alleviate,” he said.

“We will also eradicate the pollution that comes with the large-scale use of diesel (generators),” he added.

The new power plant, which will run on diesel fuel as well, has scrubbers to reduce emissions compared to diesel-run generators, its backers said.

But the installation of a fossil fuel plant comes as countries around the world move to cut reliance on fossil fuels to curb global warming in line with the Paris Agreement to cut climate change - a deal South Sudan signed.

While the facility may reduce emissions compared to using generators, installing renewable power - from solar, wind, hydropower or other clean sources - would have been a cleaner and potentially cheaper choice, some say.

HYDROPOWER ROADBLOCK

Seven years ago, South Sudan’s government did explore building a dam on the Nile River to generate clean electricity.

With the help of the Norwegian government, it started the Fulla Dam project, designed to generate power from turbines set in the river without the need for a large water storage dam.

Such an approach was designed to avoid conflicts with downstream neighbours, like those Ethiopia is experiencing with Egypt over its large-scale Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, said Lawrence Laku Wani, an undersecretary in the country’s electricity ministry.

But security concerns in the conflict-torn country and government failures halted the project, said Laku, an engineer.

Now South Sudan, in addition to its new fossil fuel plant, plans to build a 20-megawatt solar power generating station with funding from African Exim Bank, the country’s president said.

He said work on the the plant is underway and it could open as early as next year.

“It is in my best personal interest to provide reliable power to the citizens of South Sudan at affordable rates,” Kiir pledged Thursday.

HIGH COSTS?

Ezra Group said it is providing nearly $290 million to put in place the 100 megawatts of new fossil fuel electricity production in South Sudan over the next few years.

South Sudan’s government is expected to pay back the investment over 17 years, it said.

The country intends to raise the funds by setting the rates it charges electricity users high enough, said Dhieu Mathok, the country’s minister of energy, dams and electricity.

However, he admitted he is “worried” that citizens might struggle to pay, given the depressed economic situation of the country.

“Generation through thermal is very expensive. That is why the tariff is expensive,” he said, noting that “we are trying to bring other sources, like generating by solar”.

South Sudan, which gained its independence from Sudan in 2011, does not yet have a legal framework for its electricity sector as the National Electricity Bill, tabled in parliament, has not yet passed, the president said.

But the electricity ministry has created some early electrification policies and strategies that call for use of hydropower, solar, wind, biomass and geothermal power, as well as fossil fuel power, said Mathok, the energy minister.

Some residents said having a stable supply of electricity in the capital city would mean a step toward greater peace in the country.

“When there is power, it means there would be improved security. And improved security will allow us to do our activities and live in our homes without fear,” said Sarah Keji, a resident of Munuki surburb in Juba.

Business owners said they hope the new power supply will cut their costs as they stop buying diesel for generators.

Reporting by Hellen Toby ; editing by Laurie Goering : Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, resilience, women's rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit news.trust.org/climate

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