On solar safari in the Serengeti: challenges and opportunities for the energy transition

The roads surrounding Kilimanjaro airport are lined with solar-powered led-lights, but by the time it’s midnight already half of them have died. Some keep switching on and off at random, most probably due to lack of power supply. Since the batteries are poured in concrete to discourage theft, they’re equally hard to repair or replace. It’s not a local issue, but familiar sight in Africa.

On solar safari

After only a short night the sun gets up at half past six and a bustling morning guides us to Karibu-Kilifair, the biggest road show for the tourism industry in East Africa, where the showpiece is a safari vehicle converted from diesel to electricity. The first in Tanzania, at least so we’re told. According to a representative, maintenance costs for regular land cruisers easily run up to $1000 a month, partly due to enormous distances they cover for collecting fuel, but so far the total expense on spare parts for the handful of operational solar prototypes is only $1 a year. While these numbers may be exaggerated, the constant crowd around the demo vehicle indicates huge interest.

Shocking conditions

Still, it’s quite a challenge to design an energy storage system for electric four-wheel-drives, that’s robust enough to withstand a lifetime of shaking and shocking on the bumpy dirt roads, while durable enough to hold up in the harsh conditions of high temperatures, high humidity and iron rich dust. Building it is one thing, charging it quite another in off-grid and expansive National Parks, let alone fast and frequent enough to prevent detours, minimise delays and keep passengers on the move. Yet all these problems are perceived as opportunities by the local entrepreneurs in tourism and tech. The air at the exhibition is static with inspiration and ideas.

Plenty sun – and potholes

If the energy transition can happen anywhere it’s here in Tanzania, just south of the equator, where the sun is omnipresent and the grid most certainly not. Already numerous small solar systems are in use throughout the country, mostly for powering lights and heating water, but scaling them up to larger installations is still relatively new and hard. It’s why we’re here, to support our local dealer Gadgetronix in a their ground breaking endeavour to run a luxury tourist resort in the middle of the Serengeti entirely on solar electricity.

Shaken, not stirred

The next day we board a tiny Cessna that takes us up to 12.500 feet of altitude, as the pilot assures us ‘we don’t want to run into any mountains’ and carries us for an hour across a variety of increasingly deserted landscapes to eventually land at Seronera, a tiny airport consisting of one building and a fire truck. As soon as we continue our trip by car we’re greeted by impala and baboons before we experience at first hand (and bottom) the tough circumstances these vehicles are subject to. The roads are covered with washboard ripples caused by the uniform bouncing of countless speeding wheels. Shaken but not stirred, we pass herds of gazelle, scattering zebra and a handful of giraffes until we round a hill and ascend it all the way to the top. There we find a Lahia: a brand-new luxury tourist lodge with a magnificent panoramic view a splendid infinity pool.

Jaw-dropping craftsmanship on diesel

Construction has been in full swing since November to literally build this whole place from scratch, which is an astounding feat, especially when considering from how far they bring in all the people, equipment and materials. A crew of two hundred men have set up camp to manufacture everything by hand, from fitting the rafters, to welding the beds, carpeting the furniture and sewing the drapes. It’s an awe-inspiring demonstration of craftsmanship nearly extinct in the west.

Tourist accommodations like these typically run on diesel generators, placed conveniently out of sight and out of sound, but nonetheless consuming hundreds of liters of fuel each day, guzzling oil and exhausting toxic fumes to the breath-taking surroundings and awe-inspiring animals already in danger of going extinct. Moreover, the continuous absorption of energy drains our planet’s limited supply of fossil fuels and last but not least the lodge owners’ bank accounts.

Saving water in a leaky bucket

Many resorts make use of solar energy to power at least some of their low energy equipment, but most bigger systems squeak and crack under heftier loads, which leads to complaints, frustration and improvised emergency solution that only add to the costs. Around here it’s still common to store energy in traditional lead-acid batteries, which compares to saving water in a leaky bucket that you can only fill and empty through a straw. Charge too fast, consume too quickly or deplete too far and they will heat, swell or leak. With heavy usage in demanding situations they require regular maintenance and typically last little longer than a few years. While these disadvantages may be overcome by being extremely cautious, their size and weight is not. Powering an upscale tourist resort like Lahia would require over nine tons of lead-acid batteries.

(Dis)charging through a firehose

It’s why we brought 20 MG lithium-ion High Energy batteries, extremely compact, highly efficient and with a total capacity of 150 kWh, while weighing ‘only’ 900 kg. These are more like the equivalent of titanium vessels you can fill and empty through a firehose. They are able to absorb and release an enormous amount of power in a very short time and feature an impressive cycle life. An added layer of electronics and smart software makes them easy to install and maintain. Because MG’s energy systems are frequently used in marine applications, the batteries are tested extensively for extreme conditions and comply with the highest safety standards.

Redundant energy supply

Over the past week we’ve supported the local crew in commissioning the installation. During the day a solar plant of nearly 500 panels harvests solar energy, inverted by 4 Fronius and 14 Victron MPPT’s before it flows through a grid created by 9 Victron Quattro’s to charge the batteries and, when there’s a surplus, power the resort. A Victron Venus GX allows us to remotely monitor the situation, day and night. The energy system is set up redundantly, which means each of the 5 MG low voltage masters is connected with 4 MG HE modules as an independent unit, to make sure the others keep on working even in the unlikely event one battery should fail. This way the entire lodge runs on solar electricity, from the water pumps to the swimming pool and the chandeliers in the dining room to the bedside table lamps, long after the sun sets on the Serengeti.

Side by side towards a common goal

It’s a steep learning curve to bridge the gap and cross the barriers between each other’s language, expertise, logistics, planning and customs, but side by side we work towards a common goal. After a couple of long days and short nights we can finally switch the giant diesel generator off and hear the sounds of all the animals around us on a dark safari night. In the comforting hum of a smoothly running power room we set up all the stools and crates that we can muster, to share some words of wisdom, while we celebrate our landmark achievement with soda and cake. ‘Hongera sana’ it reads in sweet letters, which is Swahili for ‘Many congratulations’. It’s done. Lahia is the first tourist lodge in the Serengeti to run entirely on solar electricity.

Stroopwafels and sharp observations

On your last day we depart with stroopwafels and heartfelt hugs before the Cessna flies us back to Arusha where we provide a technical training for anyone who’s interested in working with MG. We’re impressed with the warm welcome and deep interest from local engineers, which lead us through an animated and interesting discussion, that educates us all. Even an offered break is skipped for just a little bit more time to ask sharp questions on best practices and theory. If it weren’t for our scheduled flight, we would have enjoyed staying much longer getting to know our new acquaintances. But a car is ready to drive us through the early evening back to Kilimanjaro airport. Most of the lights that lead our way are burning, bright and uninterrupted, others not yet.

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