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Lesotho goes big on wind

Chinese loans enable Lesotho to develop the largest green energy project in Africa.

Lesotho's exceptional altitude brings increased risk to wind farms, including damage from lightning strikes and ice accumulation in winter. Photo: Nick Van der Leek

The most common way into Lesotho is via the frontier town of Ficksburg, and then the border capital of Maseru. Counter-intuitively, once across the border, it doesn't feel at all like SA. One reason is that no part of Lesotho lies below 1 400m, which means the mountain kingdom – and the world's highest country – is also essentially a world perched in the sky. It's a place of cooler climes and rugged beauty. But virtually none of the roads are fenced or tarred and here rivers cross roads rather than the other way around.

Now, with renewable energy expenditures having for the first time trumped investments in fossil fuels ($187 billion in 2010 vs $157 billion, respectively), Lesotho is reaping the renewable whirlwind – and in a big way. The R110 billion project is the biggest of its kind in Africa (80% is financed via Chinese loans). The timing is, if anything, fortuitous, given the November climate conference (COP17) in Durban last year.

Greenpeace has accused SA of an 'addiction to coal' in the past, and this wind power project (which will form part of the Highlands Water Project) will alleviate Lesotho's neighbour's hunger for energy. But not by much. Wind power will generate an additional 6 000 megawatts (MW), that's around 3% of SA's annual energy requirement (roughly 210 billion kWh). Although SA is the world's 25th largest economy, it's the 17th most voracious consumer of electric power globally, and every year the demands on the grid increase.

In September 2011, electricity consumption increased 1.9%, barely outpaced by production (which reached 2.4% in the same month, according to StatsSA). Year on year, however, SA's electricity imports were down more than 8%, while exports had increased over 3%.

The bottom line is this: clean energy has become a lot more competitive in comparison to coal, which is excellent news for both SA and Lesotho.

Challenging geography

The site of the proposed wind farm is near the Letseng-La-Teria diamond mine in the Mokhotlong district, about 400km northeast of Maseru, and roughly half that distance across the border to Ladysmith in KwaZulu-Natal. Pending the results of an environmental impact assessment, a 150MW wind farm will kick off the first phase of development in 2012. South African investment firm Harrison and White and its Chinese technology partner Ming Yang Wind Power will construct wind turbine components factories both in Lesotho and SA.

One of the spin-offs of the 15-year project will be the creation of 25 000 jobs. Another, the construction of roads and power lines – a tough proposition given Lesotho's unusual geography. The country's notorious hairpin bends have already necessitated the trimming of wind turbine stems from a conventional 80m to just 60m in height, about half the maximum range. Due to the risks associated with Lesotho's exceptional altitude and climate, one key requirement is for the turbines to be certified for trawling the heavens at 3 200m.

The site of the proposed wind farm is near the Letseng-La-Teria diamond mine in the Mokhotlong district, about 400km northeast of Maseru. Photo: Nick Van der Leek

Given that more than 80% of Lesotho is 1 800m or more above sea level, these wind farms will also be the world's highest, and thus susceptible to high rates of localised lightning strikes (Lesotho has one of the world's highest rates). Another concern is the ability of the aluminium composite blades to withstand the Mountain Kingdom's icy (down to -20°C) winters. Ice accumulation is a problem that can worsen in low-wind scenarios, which impacts economic viability. Another fear is the harm development might do to rare organisms that occupy otherwise uninhabited wetland areas. There is also a perverse trend associated with developing wind farms these days, where ostensibly 'green developments' are targeted as the enemy by environment 'campaigners'. Even so, Moss Leoka, executive director of Harrison and White, says he is “braced for a backlash against wind turbines”.

Price tag

Although it appears that, at first glance, Lesotho is laughing all the way to the bank, selling both water and power to its emergent neighbour, the country has borne the cost of all these developments. Lesotho has suffered countless flooded valleys over the past decade, and ironically, has seen as much as a third of its groundwater and boreholes running dry. HIV has effectively bankrupted the country.

Statistics show the little country is in deep trouble. In 2010, exports were estimated at $823 million, while imports (including of food) were more than $1 billion more, at $1.885 billion. The new diamond plant at Letseng-La-Teria is highly mechanised, and thus unable to absorb the growing burden of unemployed (45% of the workforce). Despite the presence of a Levi's jeans factory, and some export activity in wool and mohair, the textile industry in Lesotho isn't what it was.

Water and diamonds just aren't going to cut it for Lesotho's population of two million. In fact, things were so bad in 2010 that a group of activists petitioned for the kingdom to be aggregated into SA.

“There is no reason for us to exist any longer as a nation with its own currency and army,'' one trade unionist declared.

Natural resources minister Monyane Moleleki offers a more optimistic view. “The Lesotho highlands power project promises hitherto unheard of positives for the socio-economic wellbeing of our nation. The project comes at a time in our history when our traditional income streams have dried up due largely to the global economic meltdown.

Moleleki presents an interesting thought. Could it be that not just impoverished countries but all countries may soon find that renewable energy provides a panacea for a range of economic troubles – from unemployment, to energy dependence, to ordinary developmental challenges, particularly in less accessible areas? Can investments in renewable energy transform not only a nation's fortunes, but also those of the global community?

According to Bloomberg's study, alluded to above, the process is already well underway. And crucially, today energy and economics means the two countries need each other now more than ever. According to Leoka: “South Africa has huge generation capacity shortages. We've had rolling blackouts since 2008 and it's holding up our new industrial projects and efforts at job creation. We need a lot of extra capacity... It's going to come,” he adds. “It's a given when you put these things anywhere in the world...The government will invite objections and I can guarantee that there will be many. We will have to prepare ourselves thoroughly to answer those questions.”

Moleleki is more buoyant. "Through this project,” he says, “our country has the potential to graduate from a least developed country status to a developing country status. Our beloved Maluti mountain range has once again proven to be the saviour for our country's economy.”

Perhaps the country with the highest lowest point is capable, after all, of flouting the laws of gravity, and economics, particularly in the Mokhotlong district, a name that means 'Land of the bald Ibis'. But then, what better place is there to dream big than a country that lives in the sky?

First published in the February 2012 issue of ITWeb Brainstorm magazine.


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