Unusual Tourism ministry solar power plant tender raises eyebrows

03 Dec 2017

There should be no question about which ministry is responsible for energy security but there is: why is the Ministry of Environment, Natural Resources Conservation and Tourism (MENT) at the forefront of a solar power project when that should be the responsibility of the Ministry of Mineral Resources, Green Technology and Energy Security (MGE)?

This past week, the former started flighting an advertisement for an expression of interest (EOI) in the design and construction of a total of 200 megawatt (MW) solar power plants in the country. The main objectives of the project are identified as building a 100MW solar power plant on grid, a 50MW solar plant off grid for Kasane and a 50MW solar plant off grid “for selected villages to meet energy demand for the communities and institutions at strategic locations across the country.” The context of “strategic” is not defined. In part, the purpose of the project describes MGE’s mandate: “to provide energy security, reduce tariffs and enable rural communities to have access to clean energy for their daily tasks and where appropriate tariff free.” Only it is MENT and not MGE that is in charge of the project.

However, MENT’s Permanent Secretary, Rule Opelo, maintained that his ministry is by no means usurping the mandate of the ministry responsible for energy.

“This is not done for the energy sector alone. Government has developed projects in areas adversely affected by climate change and have a potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” he said in response to written questions from Sunday Standard.

Opelo revealed that the money for the project will come not from the government but the Green Climate Fund (GCF) which was established within the framework of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change to assist developing countries like Botswana adapt to and carry out mitigation actions against climate change. Parties to the Paris Agreement are supposed to collectively contribute at least $100 billion per annum. In Botswana, the GCF process is coordinated from MENT as the focal point for climate change, Opelo explained.

Missing from the picture at this point is not just MGE but the Botswana Power Corporation (BPC), the state-owned company responsible for electrical power generation, transmission and distribution in the country. The latter means that if the MENT’s solar power plant see the light of day, they will have to be connected to the BPC grid. Sunday Standard learns that at this point, BPC is not involved in any capacity in the proposed project. According to Opelo, once all the fundamentals fall in place, the appropriate ministries and institutions will “take over” the process. One aspect of such development will be the signing of a Power Purchase Agreement (PPA) with BPC.

“A lot of work remains to establish what the GCF will be able to fund, this is the focus at this stage. The PPA will be part of the implementation process by the implementing entities. BERA and other stakeholders will be engaged on those processes. BPC will be the custodian of this project subject to further approvals by appropriate institutions,” said Opelo referring to the Botswana Energy Regulatory Authority.

Some will find it odd that BPC (which has technical expertise and experience in projects of this nature and will be “custodian” of the project) as well as the national authority for energy are not involved in this project in any capacity at the planning stage. This will only fuel speculation about a process that Opelo describes as being beyond reproach. The process has indeed set tongues wagging both inside and outside the Government Enclave, the government district in the capital city, Gaborone. Tongues that wag the wildest allege that the EOI is actually a mere formality that has been designed to legitimise an elaborate scheme that otherwise lacks such attribute. The end-game, it is further alleged, is to award the contract to a certain Israeli company long earmarked for such favour. The essence of that allegation is that MENT’s interest in the project goes no farther than the award of the tender.

This process unfolds as BPC is itself undertaking a similar project. In April this year, it invited companies to join it in a joint venture (JV) for the development, implementation and operation of a 100 MW solar power plant. The JV will sell its power to BPC through a PPA. Against the background of MENT’s project, a senior government official hyperbolically frets about the possibility of a situation in which “each ministry has its own solar power project.”

A showdown between MENT and the parliamentary Public Accounts Committee (PAC) could be looming. Some PAC members reportedly believe what Opelo denied - that the ministry has assumed a mandate that ordinarily resides elsewhere. If it happens, the showdown would take the form of either Opelo or the Minister of Environment, Natural Resources Conservation and Tourism appearing before the PAC to explain the ministry’s actions.

Whatever company wins the tender would have to provide evidence of having completed a project of a minimum of 300MW power station in the last four years as well as proof of operational space; demonstrate proven experience in the development of power plants and the experience of key staff to be engaged in the project; and “must be Tier One compliant.” Then again, the process may go no farther than the EOI itself. The disclaimer says that the EOI does not constitute a request for proposal (RFP) or a promise to issue an RFP in the future: “The request for information does not commit the government to contract for supply or service whatsoever.”

If the project does indeed go ahead, there would be need to secure vast tracts of land on which to build the plants. In answer to a direct question of whether the ministry has secured such land, Opelo responded: “The current process is to engage the GCF on possible funding for a project of such magnitude. After the possibility of funding and the level of funding have been established, the necessary processes will be followed. The issue of land, access to grid and others will be handled by the competent authorities.”

For a long time now, the government has not been able to permanently shake off a stubborn and pervasive jinx from its energy projects. After its commissioning and before the problems were rectified, the Morupule B Power Plant in Palapye became an unmitigated Third World disaster that would literally plunge the country in darkness over long periods of time. In his last state-of-the-nation address, President Ian Khama expressed confidence that the refurbishment of Morupule A’s three units will be completed this month. Some industry insiders are skeptical about that.