Malawi, we missed you

malawiOk, so Craig and his team had identified the most suitable sites in Malawi for wind farm development so it was back on a plane (or three) armed with plenty of maps, cameras, GPS, mozzie repellent, mozzie net and a week to try and find a couple of actual wind farm sites. This time around it was Dougie, from our measurement team, and I that were braving Malawi. Dougie was joining to provide input on his area of expertise, met mast installation. The most challenging part of the whole project is the supply, installation and management of two 70m anemometry masts in Malawi which will be installed on the two most promising sites. Whilst Craig and his team can identify general site features as part of their constraints mapping, it’s still absolutely necessary to actually visit each site in person. So, we spent an extremely busy week travelling around central and northern Malawi visiting five specific areas – two 4x4s, five partner representatives, 1500 km, lots of biscuits, too many peanut butter and jam sandwiches (fresh fruit and veg involves lengthy trips to the market) but no creepy crawlies this time, thankfully.

We visited all five areas and inbetween times, traveled through some beautiful, and not so beautiful, parts of the country. The central and northern parts of Malawi have a relatively low population density but the population is widespread with the vast majority living in rural areas. This means it’s actually surprisingly hard to find genuinely remote areas of the country. Just when you think that 18 km on a dirt track should be enough to remove you from it all, you swing round a corner to come across another little collection of houses surrounded by well cropped fields, children playing and chickens weaving in between it all.

Central Malawi is generally very flat and open with low scrub covering the ground. The landscape is scattered with tall sharp rocky extrusions, most of which are named after an animal or part of the anatomy; you can use your imagination. In the north, passed the town of Mzimba for example, the landscape rises, becoming dominated by forest. Unfortunately, like in many other parts of the world,Malawi’s native forestry is being cleared at an alarming rate. After tobacco (which dominates its exports), timber is one of Malawi’s premium exports. As the demand for tobacco falls, Malawi is having to rely more heavily on timber as a source of income. In addition to export, the timber is also used by Malawians for heating and cooking. This meant Dougie and I passed mile after mile of clear felled or burnt forestry moving through the northern parts of the country. Sad to see but there is simply no other option for Malawians who live in these rural areas. As the population continues to grow, the rate of deforestation will only increase.

Which takes us full circle and back to the rationale behind this exciting project. With less than 10 % of the population having access to grid electricity, the vast majority of Malawi’s growing energy demand is met by relatively inefficient biomass burning because there is simply no other option. malawiAs a result, significant investment is being made in the country’s electrical grid and generation capacity. The country is currently almost wholly powered by “renewable sources”. Domestic heat and light from biomass and grid electricity from hydro schemes built in the second half of the 20th century. This means there’s a real push to ensure that further generation capacity is also renewable so transition from domestic biomass use to (national and mini) grid supplied power doesn’t result in the growth of polluting fossil fuels and reliance on importing this same fuel. In this light, the Scottish Government agreed to fund a project to see what contribution wind might make to this. And this is where we’ve come in.

In 2013, Dougie and the measurement team will be installing two anemometry masts in Malawi, and Craig and his team will be having a detailed look at the practical, political and economic challenges associated with developing wind farms in the country. The work never stops here at SgurrEnergy.

We’ll keep you updated!

Ralph TorrRalph Torr
Ralph holds a Mechanical Engineering (MEng) degree from the University of Strathclyde. He is a senior engineer in SgurrEnergy’s wind analysis team and has considerable experience in international wind farm pre-construction energy yield assessment, wind regime assessment and operational wind farm performance assessment and optimisation. Ralph enjoys hill walking and is a keen triathlete.

The views in this blog are the opinion of the author. They are based on their own interpretation of our projects, industry developments and renewable energy news.