Just as mobile phones conquered Africa without the need to oust a sometimes non-existent wire network, solar electricity could well flood the continent even before there is widespread access to electricity produced from gas, coal or nuclear energy.
Burkina Faso is currently experiencing this great leap towards the future, passing over polluting energies, thanks to infrastructure that is unique in West Africa. In a country where 80% of the population does not have access to electricity, it was an emergency.
The Zagtouli solar power plant, which is now in the test phase prior to its commissioning scheduled for 28 November 2017, is thinking big. This state-of-the-art power plant is located at about 15 km from the capital Ouagadougou and is being financed by AFD and the European Union. It will produce some 5% of the country’s consumption, for a price to the final consumer practically four times lower than those of Burkina Faso’s national operator on the conventional grid. There is also an incomparable benefit for the environment.
Tens of thousands of families are seeing their daily lives completely changed by the electricity from the sky, thanks to interconnections to the neighboring cities of Ouahigouya (180 km to the north of the capital) and Gourcy (140 km to the north-west of Ouagadougou).
It was in 2016 that the project for the solar power plant in Burkina Faso came to fruition, with the construction of a 33 MW power plant with an annual generation capacity of 56 GWh on the entire national grid of the National Electricity Company of Burkina Faso (Sonabel), i.e. about 5% of the country’s total consumption. For much less: “At the Zagtouli power plant, the average cost is estimated at 35 CFA francs per KWh, whereas Sonabel’s cost stood at 133 CFA francs per KWh in 2016”, explains an executive from the power plant.
The works have at present been completed. It is now time to conduct tests on this structure built to withstand 120 km/h winds. The power plant is made up of a total of 129,600 modules or “panels”. Each panel has a unit capacity of 260 W. “Once these panels have started capturing energy from the sun, the transformation phase begins. Direct current comes out of these panels, which we need to transform into 420 V alternating current”. Then, to inject this current into the national grid, it is necessary to increase this voltage from 420 to 33,600 V.
This is all managed from the solar station. It handles the monitoring of the performance of the parameters of the power plant. “This is where we select the capacity which we need to put on the grid, also depending on weather conditions and what the power plant can generate.” All that needs to be done now is open the valves to light up Burkina Faso.
Bérenger Dabiré never imagined he would work on this kind of site. At 27, this biology graduate is the power plant’s Health, Safety and Environment (HSE) supervisor. One thing which never leaves him is his love for the environment. “During my training at the Polytechnic University of Bobo-Dioulasso, I was moved by these climate and renewable energies issues.” One day, he saw an advert on Internet for a job at the power plant site. He applied and was hired. It was in early 2016.
Over a year later, Bérenger Dabiré has no regrets. On the contrary: “I benefited from mentoring in the field and with this job, I earn a good living and provide for my family”, smiles the young man. Bérenger has workers under his responsibility. He must convince them to take health and environmental safety issues into account. “It’s not easy to explain to someone who has worked on sites for 20 years with no shoes on that he has to wear them.”
But the supervisor is patient and pedagogical. “I’ve done a lot of awareness-raising. For example, I tell them that if they don’t wear shoes, they can injure themselves and won’t be able to work any more”. There is no better argument: “They ended up getting used to it and this has allowed us to avoid accidents”, he is pleased to say. Bérenger now dreams of doing a Master’s in QSE (Quality, Safety and Environment) and applying for a more important job. “The experience I’ve gained at the power plant will contribute a lot to this!”
Georgette Koné, the “doctor”
31 January 2017. Georgette has only just finished her studies. This state-registered nurse does not wait for the postings and directly applies to manage the infirmary of the Zagtouli power plant. With a white coat and a permanent smile, this mother’s days are almost all the same: “I work under the supervision of a doctor who comes once a month. My role is to provide care for all the staff on the site of the Zagtouli power plant. It generally involves injuries, gastroenteritis and malaria.”
She examines, prescribes medication and follows up her patients. “In general, I ask them to come back and see me. But they don’t come back any more when they start feeling better”, laughs the young woman. Every day, 4, 6 or up to 15 people go to her infirmary, a converted container which has a consultation bed and a hospitalization room.
Georgette Koné’s work also concerns prevention: “We organize a lot of awareness-raising campaigns on AIDS and meningitis”, she points out. At the end of the day, Georgette carefully puts her coat away in a cupboard. Like everyone who makes Zagtouli, she is proud to take part in Burkina Faso’s green revolution.
An extension is already planned at the Zagtouli solar power plant in order to increase its production and meet the strong demand. It will increase the generation capacity by 17 MW, in addition to the current capacity of 33 MW.
According to Daniel Sermé, Director of Studies, Planning and Equipment at Sonabel, it will be possible to connect some 6 million people in Burkina Faso to the electricity grid by 2020, in particular thanks to the interconnections and generation capacity of new solar power plants. Indeed, after Zagtouli, Burkina Faso firmly intends to build five new solar power plants.