Europe’s biggest solar energy project, the first to be truly competitive with fossil fuel, also helps light Africa

Every renewable energy project has a significance beyond the electricity it generates. After all, renewables also replace the kinds of electricity production that heat up the world’s climate.

The Cestas Photovoltaic plant, which is inaugurated this week, produces clean energy that’s equivalent to the domestic usage of at least a third of the residents of nearby Bordeaux. The activation of its 1 million solar panels also marks a big milestone in climate-friendly energy. Cestas is the first major photovoltaic project to be truly competitive with fossil fuel power stations.

It’s the climax of a long road for the solar photovoltaic industry that's paralleled in other fields in developing renewable energy. Growth was slow each year of the 1990s and most of the first decade of this century. However, technological developments and increasing economies of scale brought a boom. Solar capacity is now nine times what it was in 2009.

“Cestas is the first big photovoltaic project we see that’s competitive with a fossil fuel alternative,” says David Gonzalez Garcia, senior engineer in the renewable energy and energy research and development division at the European Investment Bank. “Costs have been going down for fifteen years, and now there’s higher supply, standardized equipment, and great economies of scale.”

Next up, offshore wind and concentrated solar

The European Investment Bank has supported solar photovoltaic projects since their infancy, often taking a role in deals that didn’t attract sufficient private investment. That helped bankroll the research that ultimately has made the industry a viable economic prospect. The bank is behind similar developments in less mature renewable energy sectors, like its big investments in British, German and Belgian offshore windfarms and the massive concentrated solar power development at Ouarzazate, Morocco, which is slated to open in 2016. Offshore wind and concentrated solar both produce relatively small proportions of the world’s electricity at present, but the evolution of solar photovoltaic offers an encouraging path for them to follow.

Cestas, a town of 16,000 set on the flatlands between Bordeaux and the Atlantic coast, sees summer temperatures as high as 42 Celsius, and there’s plenty of sunshine. The renewable energy company Neoen built its solar photovoltaic plant, the biggest in Europe, over the last year. Its panels cover an area the size of 600 football fields. It will produce a third of the power of a French nuclear facility, without any of the environmental or political risks.

The Cestas operators secured an offtake contract with Electricité de France that will make revenue more secure. Allied with the drop in prices of solar technology brought about by a bigger market, “solar photovoltaic power is now really competitive,” says Céline Lauverjat, investment director at Mirova Renewable Energy Funds in Paris. “It’s a key moment in the photovoltaic industry.”

Mirova’s Eurofideme III, a EUR 180 million investment fund, has a EUR 30 million investment in the EUR 285 million Cestas project, including debt and equity. A measure of how the EIB’s support for solar photovoltaic has matured along with the industry is the bank’s own investment in Eurofideme III, in which it effectively has an equity stake in the Cestas project. (The EIB also approved EUR 42 million in loans to a French bank financing Cestas.)

When downscale is good

The future of solar photovoltaic energy isn’t all about massive projects in developed countries. Photovoltaic has one advantage over some other renewable energy technologies — it can be scaled down. Whereas you’re unlikely ever to erect a 90 metre-tall wind turbine in your garden, you might well attach some solar panels to your roof. That adaptability makes solar power very attractive in remote parts of the world where there’s no alternative power supply.

“It’s really taking off in places where there’s no power grid,” says Dr. Sophie Jablonski, an engineer in the energy efficiency and small energy projects division of the EIB’s Projects Directorate. “In African villages the only alternative light source, for example, might be kerosene lamps, which are expensive and the fumes are toxic.”

The EIB is about to lend EUR 14 million to two solar projects in Africa. The enormous economies of scale in big European solar projects brought down the price of photovoltaic panels so far that they can now be purchased by individual families in remote regions. “The more large photovoltaic projects you have like the one in Bordeaux, the bigger the effect on the cost of solar equipment turned out by factories in China,” says Michael Gera, managing partner of Energy Access Ventures, one of the managers being backed by EIB. “A big project in Bordeaux is going to lead to benefits for small projects in Africa.”

The EIB-backed projects are:

· Pamiga (Participatory Microfinance Group for Africa): the EIB will lend EUR 4 million to a fund which in turn lends to microfinance companies in rural Africa. Those companies make loans for people to buy solar kits (as well as investing in irrigation and drinking water facilities). The fund will operate in a number of African countries, including Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Kenya, Madagascar, Senegal, Tanzania and Togo

· Energy Access Fund: the EIB has invested EUR 10 million equity in the fund, which lends to start-up companies providing access to energy in East Africa. The fund aims to bring reliable electricity to one million low-income people in rural and partially urbanised areas of Sub-Saharan Africa

“African microfinance has to be green and inclusive to be sustainable and responsible,” says Renée Chao-Béroff, Pamiga’s general manager. “Solar photovoltaic is very important in this green microfinance economy.”

Global warming doesn’t recognise national borders. Thankfully for the energy consumers of Bordeaux and Benin, neither does the sun.