Sarako and the Democratisation Process

On Wednesday 28 May in the afternoon the Bambous Solar Farm was formally inaugurated by Prime Minister Dr Navin Ramgoolam.

It should be a matter of pride for Mauritius that not only is this the largest solar energy project of its kind in the island (and probably the region too) with a capacity of 15 MW, but its construction in the record time of a mere four months led the representative of the German partner, Tauber Solar, Mr Markus Karl to state that, based on their Mauritian experience, Sarako and Tauber Solar were in a position to compete for world record in this field!

In fact, they have already won an international contract for a similar but larger project (20 MW) in Burundi, and another one is in the pipeline in Madagascar. As Markus Karl said, Sarako with Tauber Solar is ‘going places’, with a focus on Africa and the region. It is to be noted that Tauber Solar Group plans, finances and operates 520 major solar power plants on rooftops and open spaces in Germany and across Europe, with an installed capacity of 125 MW (with Sarako this is now 140 MW), is backed by research with the University of Wurburg in Germany and is in partnership with nearly 3000 investors and joint venturers.

A few technical points about the Bambous Solar Farm of Sarako is in order before we take a look at the larger picture in which this achievement is situated. The farm covers an area of 30 hectares at the foot of a mountain in Bambous, and 60800 photovoltaic panels have been installed. Besides the substation of 66 Kv and the control room, a transmission line of 4.2 km and several kilometres of cable have been laid along with 5 km of fencing and 1.8 km of internal road. There are also 35 CCTV cameras. It goes without saying that all the electrical equipments including the solar panels, inverters, medium and large transformers conform to European Norms and Standards as well to Mauritian ones where applicable. The plant became operational in February 2014.

It is also important to underline that no upfront investment was required from the Mauritian government in this project which will create direct and indirect employment of about 300, and that being a supplier of 100% ‘green energy’, it will save the country about 14000 tons of carbon emission annually.

This point was taken up, indeed emphasized by the PM in his address, during which he alluded to the vision of ‘Maurice Ile Durable’ which he articulated in 2008, observing that the Sarako project was in line with the four-pronged approach of MID, one of which was reducing the dependence of the country on fossil fuels by shifting to alternative sources of renewable energy. In fact, he said, this now stands at 20.6, and it is projected to scale it up to 35% by 2025. He took a shot at naysayers and skeptics, despite whom he said, MID was advancing.

From a larger and long-term perspective, the Sarako project undoubtedly forms part of the democratization process which was announced in this government’s manifesto. Unfortunately, however, this process seems to be struggling along by fits and starts, especially in the energy sector. In so critical a domain, it is primarily government’s responsibility to ensure energy security, which means that it must not be hostage to contracts with Independent Power Producers of the sort that it has agreed to earlier. These ‘provide that any fluctuations in cost due to higher cost of inputs (including coal), any external or internal price inflation, changes in freight rates, any adverse effect of exchange rate changes on the cost of production of the IPPs, any taxes will be factored into the price of electricity charged by the IPPs. In other words, the IPPs are passing on all risks to the CEB and, by extension, to the public.’ The IPPs incur no risk, all of it is passed on to the government – which means the people, because even the price of electricity to them cannot be freely negotiated under these conditions.

This is clearly to the population’s disadvantage, and there has never been any indication of how this conundrum can be resolved. This will have to be done sooner or later, but meanwhile the government, besides providing the enabling environment with clear policy guidelines and having the regulatory mechanisms in place, must insist upon a level playing field and strict adherence to laid-down rules and regulations as was done in the case of Sarako. The PM saluted the acumen of the promoters in selecting marginal lands for their project, adding that they did not apply for prime land – nor would they have got it anyway, he said. Fine, and point taken. But it would be helpful to learn more about what is happening to prime lands in general, as also to the trade-off of 2000 acres between government and the sugar oligarchy which was agreed upon, and which was supposed to have been utilized essentially for social housing and agriculture.

Likewise, there are a number of other issues about the democratization process to which we will return later. At this stage, with the PM let us congratulate the promoters of the Bambous Solar Farm, for they amply deserve it not only as a successful example of both ongoing democratisation of the energy sector but also of an environmentally sustainable accomplishment with collateral benefits for the village of Bambous and the tourism image of Mauritius as a green – or greener – destination. Government was firm in not giving way to obstructionist tactics which threatened to derail the project towards the end of November last year when heavy rainfall in the region – qualified as du jamais vu by the Director of the Meteorological Station – washed down the mountain and flooded some illegal hutments downstream, and the onus was put on Sarako. Nevertheless, the promoters showed their sense of responsibility by taking care of those affected for several days, and it is no irony that some inhabitants of the locality are now employed by Sarako.

It is to be hoped that government will remain true and firm to its overall democratisation agenda, based on legality and focused on the wider interest of the country, without allowing itself or genuine players abiding by the rules to be torpedoed by illegality and lobbies that thrive on it.

* Published in print edition on 30 May 2014

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