What Cape Verde can teach us about wind power

This is a guest post by Anne Wheldon, knowledge and research adviser at Ashden. The annual Ashden Awards reward high calibre, pioneering enterprises in the UK and developing world that share Ashden’s vision of sustainable energy for all.

The day I visited the island of San Vicente in the West African island state of Cape Verde last February was a normal Friday, as any other. In Mindelo, the main town on San Vincente, people were working in their businesses, shopping, getting cash out from ATMs for the weekend. In the hotel, staff were checking their sound system and making other preparations for a big function that evening.

So far, so normal. But what was amazing to me was that, on that particular day, 45 per cent of San Vicente’s electricity was generated by its wind farm. That was a good day but was by no means unique: averaged over the past year, San Vincente has generated more than 30 per cent of its own electricity from wind, and Cape Verde as a whole nearly 20 per cent. This former Portuguese colony is now second only to Denmark in the percentage of its power supply generated from wind. 

Lessons from a small island
I was in Cape Verde to see the work of Cabeólica, the public-private partnership that has built four wind farms on different islands, and which won a World Bank Ashden Award in the ‘small island developing states’ category at this year’s Ashden awards. The Ashden judging panel said of the project: “The rate at which Cape Verde has achieved such a high proportion of wind power in its electricity mix is truly staggering. It is showing other resource-stretched small islands around the world what can be achieved, where there’s a will.”

In the UK, we frequently hear that wind power is inefficient, and that it can never make a serious contribution because of its variability. But, in the words of Antão Fortes, CEO of Cabeólica: “Cape Verde has shown that it’s no more difficult to manage variable electricity supply from wind than it is to manage variable demand from consumers.”

A thriving economy
So how have they managed it? Is it just that Cape Verde is a tiny backwater of 500,000 people, with low electricity demand and low expectations? Well, it is a small island state, but it’s certainly not backward. The economy is growing, tourism is thriving (and tourists don’t take kindly to power cuts) and many expatriate Cape Verdeans are returning because of the better prospects at home.

Perhaps residents had wind farms forced on them? Not at all. There was a formal consultation including a public meeting at each wind farm site. And the overwhelming opinion was that the wind farms looked good and promised islanders a better future. The community understood the opportunity the wind farms offered to cut the crippling cost of importing diesel to generate electricity.  And they were right: the country’s fuel import bill fell by 34 per cent, over $50 million, between 2011 and 2012.

Success through public-private partnership
Undoubtedly, a major reason for Cape Verde’s success is the fact that Cabeólica is a public-private partnership between the government, the electric utility and private investors. Cabeólica has to satisfy all partners, and has achieved this through meeting high standards in equipment, service and maintenance and great liaison.

But equally, all the partners see it as both in their interest, and also their responsibility, to make the project work. For example, government of Cape Verde has not just set ambitious goals for supplying electricity from renewables, but has worked hard to sort out regulations and tariffs to make them workable. And the electric utility has tackled the challenges of integrating large amounts of wind power into its rather fragile grid.

For those who are sceptical about wind power, its economic feasibility and its aesthetics, Cape Verde is a shining model of how to make it work.

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