Total switch to solar power


A petroleum firm has made a pioneering step from just talking about renewable energy to doing something about it, Our Staff Writer JAMES CHAVULA writes.

As darkness thickened over Lilongwe City, dazzling rays from the country’s first solar-powered service station shined a light on a dimly lit lawn where Total Malawi managing director Salamata Ball unveiled a new step to expand its energy mix. Such was the ambience on the warm Tuesday evening the French oil firm switched on the renewable energy project at Area 6 in the capital city, signalling an end to the days service stations were strongholds of diesel, paraffin and petrol which emit polluting fumes into the air.

An earial view of Area 36 service Station

“We believe in solar energy as a solution to energy challenges facing Malawi and our world,” stated Ball, giving glimpses of the company’s renewable energy strategy.

The glitter of 125 solar panels on the rooftop of Area 6 service station reflects the French oil firm’s ambition for low-carbon business.

The strategists behind the broadening energy mix envisage that shifting the focus toward solar power and gas becoming pivotal as the world’s future is being shaped by the dual challenge of climate change and growing demand for electricity. According to Ball, Total Malawi’s plans to unveil 20 solar-powered service stations within five years.


New ambition

Apart from installing the rooftop solar panels that turn sunlight into electricity, Total service centres in the country stock solar lamps, a growing source of lighting and phone charging in homes that once relied on candles and kerosene lamps. The vanishing of paraffin pumps in services stations testifies to the gradual switch towards smoke-free household lamps.

Taking these realities into account, Total is investing heavily in solar—a fast-growing source of renewable energy boasting many advantages.

In 2016, the company announced its ambition for low-carbon business to account for nearly 20 percent of its portfolio.

A $300 million project is underway to install solar panels from its subsidiary, Sun Power,  on 5 000 of its service stations globally. The photovoltaic panels will produce 200 megawatts, enough to double up the power supplied to the country’s grid which supplies just a tenth of the population.

“The project is fully aligned with Total’s ambition of becoming the responsible energy major and its commitment to developing solar. It will reduce our carbon emissions by 100 000 tonnes per year and cut our bill by $40 million per year,” said Philippe Sauquet, the president of gas, renewables and power at Total in France.

He indicated that service stations in Africa would be the main recipient, accounting for half of the installations.

Total’s contribution towards Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) six—ensuring access to clean and affordable energy—-was a highlight of  this year’s Sustainable Energy Forum in Lisbon, Portugal where the company re-affirmed its push to transform service stations into selling points for stepping up access to solar power  solutions for all.

The promise to ensure 20 of its 65 service stations in the country run on solar indicates Total’s confidence in the power of the sun, says renewable energy engineer Schizzo Thomson, the managing director of Sky Energy.

His company worked with Total’s workforce to pull off the pioneering solar power project at Area 6 Service Station, which Lilongwe City mayor Desmond Bikoko said has added beauty to the capital city’s skyline. However, the real beauty glows at night when Electricity Supply Corporation of Malawi (Escom) switches off power in a greater part of the city.

Lately, the blackouts have become frequent and lengthy as  drought, siltation and falling water levels in the Shire have halved electricity generated on the drying Shire River. The ripple effect of the shortage of electricity has been huge on service stations and other shops.

Ndaona Nkhonjera, the lead engineer of the project, is proud of her work which has relegated the on-off power grid a secondary source of electricity alongside generators and a battery bank.

It has also reduced carbon fumes emitted by backup generators that roar to life when Escom effects its load shedding routines.


Lessons on Energy

Thomson, who worked hand in hand with Nkhonjera’s team, waxed lyrical about Total’s commitment to providing solar energy which is renewable, cleaner and environmental friendly.

To the youthful engineer, the making of the country’s first service station that operates 100 percent on solar power cements Sky Energy’s  credibility in providing innovative and an adaptive solar services “not only at household level but also at industrial level”. It represents a get-together of two companies gradually revolutionising the energy sector from dependency on hydro power to solar energy.

He states: “This has demonstrated  to the country that Solar Power has the capacity to power and run huge facilities with consistency.  Malawians should learn from the French firm’s decision that reliance on hydroelectric, which is unreliable, will continually make the country remain behind economically. It is time they should migrate to solar energy which is reliable, making their businesses to operate without  power interruptions. Solar energy does not pose a danger to the environment. People should go into solar to conserve the environment because we already know the impacts of not doing so.”

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