Sustainable solutions: Montigny Investments, the largest timber company in the country, uses offcuts from sawmilling and forestry harvesting to produce power. The firm is planning a 35MW plant. Picture: SUPPLIED
Sustainable solutions: Montigny Investments, the largest timber company in the country, uses offcuts from sawmilling and forestry harvesting to produce power. The firm is planning a 35MW plant. Picture: SUPPLIED

It’s early days, but the prospect of Swaziland becoming the first African country to become totally powered by renewable energy is looking increasingly bright.

Ushering in this green revolution is a 35MW biomass power plant to be developed by the kingdom’s largest timber company, Montigny Investments, by 2020.

"Using the offcuts from our sawmilling and forestry harvesting processes to produce power allows Montigny to increase the value we extract out of each tree sustainably, which is our ultimate goal," Kelly Cure, the company’s head of strategic initiatives, says.

"We view the forests as an interconnected ecosystem full of opportunities, which is why we are involved in many markets outside of traditional forestry and sawmilling — including essential oils, resin tapping and honey harvesting."

The plant will be built at Bhunya mill, located within Montigny’s 76,000ha Usutu Forest Estate in western Swaziland. The location is ideal: harvest areas — where forest biomass can be gathered — are, on average, only 23km away, while sawmill waste is generated on-site.

Initial projections are that the project will create several hundred jobs, with an estimated R275m flowing into the Swazi economy annually – through increased employment, investment and the replacement of electricity imports.

Although the country is able to generate up to 17% of electricity sales domestically using its four hydropower stations, it is hugely reliant on imports of thermal power from SA under an agreement which expires in 2025, and which has seen double-digit tariff increases each year.

"The drought state of emergency has depleted Swaziland’s hydro resources, leading to 100% reliance on imported power at many points over the past year," Cure says. "Our project will help Swaziland regain energy independence by supplying nearly 30% of the nation’s energy demand."

A pre-feasibility assessment and several additional technical studies are complete, and Montigny has inked a memorandum of understanding with the country’s power utility, the Swaziland Electricity Company. The project’s lead development partner – which will provide biomass energy know-how and assist in procuring the R1.5bn-R2bn in funding required — will be announced soon.

Cure believes that the plant’s power-generating capacity could increase to up to 60MW if additional biomass can be procured. One potential source is from the rehabilitation of 30,000ha of "wattle jungles" which have spread across the communal areas neighbouring Montingy’s plantations.

The company is seeking funding for the expansion of a pilot programme developed in partnership with the NGO TechnoServe, which provides small-scale foresters with micro-loans, mentorship and support to tame the jungles into orderly plantations.

Managed plantations

The entire harvested tree is utilised: the timber is exported to Japan to be turned into high-quality paper, tannin from the bark is used to treat leather, and the biomass is fuel for the power plant.

In addition to reducing fire risks and ensuring grazing land and water courses are kept free of the invasive trees, research shows that the carefully managed plantations would see yields and profits increasing by at least five times in three to seven years – transforming the lives of the economically vulnerable communities who manage them.

If the expansion programme is a success, the partners hope to replicate it in other parts of Swaziland.

According to the 2015 Southern African Development Community (Sadc) Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Status report, renewables account for 23.5% of power generation in southern Africa. The multilateral body wants this to increase to 37% by 2027, with the goal of reaching 100% renewable energy by 2050.

To help to achieve this, the Sadc Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Strategy and Action Plan was fine-tuned in October at a workshop in Johannesburg chaired by a representative from Swaziland’s ministry of natural resources and energy. This followed on August’s Sadc heads of state and government summit hosted by King Mswati III at the Lozitha Royal Palace, of which the theme was "sustainable energy infrastructure".

The Montigny project was recognised at the summit as one of Swaziland’s flagship energy initiatives, alongside a proposed 200MW hydrokinetic plant to be developed by the US-based Zoetic Energy.

Swaziland’s championing of renewables in regional forums is a sign, Cure says, that the country is taking renewable energy seriously, which is good news for independent power producers keen to set up shop in the tiny kingdom.

Cure believes there is the potential to generate 150MW – 100% of the country’s current baseload requirements – if, in addition to the Montigny plant, some of the country’s other five timber and sugar plantations were to initiate or expand power generation.

Illovo’s Ubombo sugar mill in Big Bend has a 25MW co-generation plant which uses bagasse (the dry fibres that remain after sugar is extracted from cane) supplemented with green cane biomass and wood, or woodchips.

In 2015, the plant exported 94.5Gigawatt hours (GWh) of power – 55GWh to Swaziland’s national grid, with the remainder being used internally.

Adding hydro and small-scale solar and wind projects into Swaziland’s energy mix would see locally produced renewable power able to cater amply for the country’s peak demand of 220MW.

"A comprehensive renewable energy roadmap that fully utilises Swaziland’s abundant resources sustainably would go a long way towards achieving energy independence and facilitating a vibrant renewable energy sector," Cure says.

"Until we see this plan, however, Montigny is eager to lead the way in developing our project and helping to attract interest and investment for other renewable projects in the country."

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