Sierra Leone is set to build the largest solar photovoltaic park in West Africa, one of several ongoing renewable energy experiments in the country and the region.

Mulk OGI (Oasis Gulf Investment) won the contract to provide engineering, procurement and construction (EPC) expertise for the US$18 million project. The project, financed in part with a $9 million loan from the Abu Dhabi Fund for Development (ADFD), will have a capacity of 6 megawatts and is expected to contribute to improving access to energy and create a broad socio-economic impact on the country.

The announcement of the project last week comes after Sierra Leone's participation in the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) fourth annual assembly in Abu Dhabi last month. Among the topics discussed were the creation of financing models to address the challenge of renewable energy deployment.

Despite its high up-front costs, renewable energy derived from wind and solar sources is becoming increasingly economically viable in several African countries. Interest in renewable forms of energy has arisen as a result of increased demand for electricity, coupled with frequent fuel shortages and the increasing prices of traditional fuel like gas, natural gas and coal.

Sierra Leone was fortunate to have received the ADFD loan to finance the solar park project, according to Sierra Leone's Special Envoy to the Middle East, Siray Timbo.

"The proposal for a solar park in Freetown was submitted for consideration last June before its selection this January from over 80 applications from various countries as one of the six to receive concessional loans from the IRENA/ADFD" Timbo said.

"It is estimated that the solar park can bring electricity to three thousand homes in Sierra Leone as well as public facilities such as hospitals and schools," he said, adding that the project has a six-month completion target. "Negotiations for the financing, getting the land and signing of the contract will take like two months. Thereafter, the commencement of the project proper will take roughly four months."

In the business plan prepared by the energy ministry, the solar park, located in Freetown, is expected to raise electricity levels and access rates as it improves stability of the electric grid. The ecologically friendly venture is also expected to help develop areas outside of Freetown and its immediate suburbs by creating opportunities for employment and technology and knowledge transfer to local workers.

The park's goal is to a profitable internal rate of return of about 6 percent, with a baseline electricity rate of $0.15 per kilwatt-hour.