Harnessing the power of the Malawian sun | Infrastructure news

Operational from Q1 2022, the 20 MW AC Golomoti Solar PV and Battery Energy Storage project is a groundbreaking development that delivers a green power solution for Malawi.

Co-developed by JCM Power, a Canadian independent power producer, and InfraCo Africa, an investment company of the Private Infrastructure Development Group, the project is believed to be the first utility-scale, grid-connected, hybrid solar and battery energy storage system (BESS) in sub-Saharan Africa.

The project’s success has been made possible due to several partners, including USAID, which provided critical development funding, Innovate UK’s Energy Catalyst programme, which provided grant funding for the batteries, and IFU, which provided JCM with debt funding.

Located in Dedza, some 100 km south-east of the country’s capital, Lilongwe, the power facility was built at a cost of around R465 million (inclusive of professional fees and construction costs). This major investment in one of the world’s poorest countries is especially significant given the fact that only about 10% of Malawi’s population has access to electricity. Malawi currently relies heavily on hydropower, exposing the country to energy security risks during the dry season, as well as extended droughts, making renewable alternatives a highly viable approach.

Zutari was appointed as the engineer for the project. The scope encompassed site identification, concept development, tender development/procurement, preliminary design, and detail design through to project execution. More specific elements comprised the PV plant design and layout, civil works, geotechnical investigation and foundation design, and electrical works. Much of the design and finer details of the project were discussed and resolved online during the learning curve of the 2020 Covid-19 lockdown.

Surrounding villages and a baobab tree

The site location presented several complexities. These included: difficult ground conditions that changed with the seasons; a landlocked country, where the procurement of equipment would be expensive and logistically demanding; a complicated site shape, housing a magnificent baobab tree that needed to be preserved; and encroaching village settlements.

Embracing these challenges, the villages and the baobab subsequently became an integral part of the virtual design, which was developed using Zutari’s in-house computational design tool, 7SecondSolar. Thanks to this advanced software platform, it was possible to do multiple design iterations in hours instead of weeks. This enabled Zutari to assist the client with comprehensive design optimisations that provided greater certainty regarding capital expenditure right from the start of the project. That proved highly beneficial, given the constant global fluctuation in PV costs.

Virtual design optimisation continued throughout the development process. Examples include the evaluation of potential PV panel shading by having the panels track the sun’s position. The model also assessed the impact of the baobab tree on potential shading in optimising the final PV layout. In the final design, the BESS modules and the tree form the centre around which the surrounding solar array was constructed.

Leading substation design

The Golomoti PV project also used Zutari’s innovative 3D substation design, a field in which the company is a market leader. The 3D design allows a single model to be produced that embodies all the equipment and layout details – available at the click of a button.

Advanced features allow the lightning protection to be viewed in a 3D space to ensure the protection covers all equipment. This 3D facility also increases accuracy and gives design refinement for manufacturing, ensuring all parts fit together, while drawings and BoQs can be generated efficiently, quickly and accurately.

Furthermore, civil designs were optimised to reduce costs by designing earthworks and drainage using locally available materials. It was determined that drainage on the site could significantly impact the villages, especially during tropical storm rainfall events. As a proactive measure, the final design catered for this, ensuring water flow is limited and contained to a safe point.

Inverters and transformers

When the client moved towards larger inverters and step-up transformers, Zutari identified the need for an oil management system. It was accomplished using 3D design and included ease of installation, together with the latest technology for an effective oil drainage system ‒ something that seemed impossible at the conception stage due to limited space. Non-compliance of proposed equipment to the latest IEC standards was also identified, allowing the client to make better choices.

Zutari’s earthing and lightning designs were well received and subject to an external expert review. Another critical design input was ensuring accessibility to the localised PTK transformers during Malawi’s rainy season, allowing for maintenance and repair activities. This included draining the road level, which further assisted during heavy downpours.

As the client’s engineer responsible for the final design and delivery, Zutari had to constantly advise on equipment selection and coordination of the various suppliers until the final products were selected. After that, Zutari was responsible for the final system integration into Malawi’s national grid, operated by government-owned utility Escom.

Far-reaching socio-economic benefits

Initiatives like the Golomoti Solar PV and Battery Energy Storage Project support the Malawian government’s drive to reduce poverty and the cost of doing business by revitalising the country’s power supply. It also aligns with Malawi’s strategy of attracting more private investment into the energy sector.

During the project’s construction, more than 550 jobs were created, of which 85% were local jobs for Malawians. Committed to having a positive long-term impact, the project – in partnership with the community – has also developed a Social and Economic Development Plan focusing on woman empowerment, health and sanitation, and subsistence-based sustainable livelihoods.

Overall, the project is a prime example of human-centred, planet-minded design. The result is a best-in-class solution that provides clean power and a future for hardworking rural communities.

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