At the second-lowest place on Earth, 155 meters below sea level, giant structures have sprouted from the arid ground. The 85-meter-tall turbines catch the winds that blow almost constantly through the northern end of the Great Rift Valley, spinning their 64-meter-long blades and sending electricity coursing toward Djibouti City, the country’s capital.
The opening of the Ghoubet wind farm this month is a giant stride toward the country’s goal of energy independence using 100 percent renewables by 2035. This is the first independent power project in the country. Currently, Djibouti imports more than 80 percent of its electricity needs from Ethiopia, its neighbor to the west.
Strategically located where the Red Sea meets the Gulf of Aden, Djibouti has an area of just over 23,000 square kilometers – smaller than the state of New Hampshire – and a population just under one million people. It has few natural resources and has built its economy around a state-of-the-art port complex. Agriculture is nearly impossible, with rainfall at 13 centimeters per year, but wind, sun, and geothermal potential are abundant.
“We decided to aim to transition to 100% renewable energy by 2035,” said Yonis Ali Guedi, Minister of Energy and Natural Resources. “We believe we have the potential today to develop national production.”
The wind farm was built by Red Sea Power, a public-private consortium of four investors – three international and one domestic. MIGA provided $91.6 million in guarantees to two of the international investors — Africa Finance Corporation and Climate Investor One, a blended finance facility managed by Climate Fund Managers — using its own resources as well as the International Development Association’s MIGA Guarantee Facility, part of its Private Sector Window.
“Without MIGA, this project could not have been implemented,” said Aboubaker Omar Hadi, Chairman of Great Horn Investment Holdings, the domestic investor, which is owned by the government of Dibouti.
The 17 turbines will produce about 237,000 megawatt-hours per year, which will be fed into the national electricity grid through newly built power lines and substations. That’s about eight times Djibouti’s current electricity use.
The geography of the site near saline Lake Assal makes it ideal for a wind farm, explained Daniel Erasmus, site manager with Red Sea Power. Two mountain ranges create a natural wind tunnel. The turbines will turn with wind as low as 3 meters per second, and reach peak capacity at 9 meters per second.
That geography also lowers the risk of collisions with birds, said Houssein Rayaleh, a longtime Djibouti conservationist who is advising Red Sea Power on biodiversity issues. The low elevation means that birds are likely to fly above the turbines rather than hitting them, he said. The impact on birds and other animals will be monitored for at least five years.
The plan also aims to minimize the project’s impact on residents of two villages near the site. Villagers in Cité Moumina, who are among the 20 percent of Djiboutians living below the global extreme poverty line of $2.15 per day, said the project has brought jobs for some of them as drivers and security guards, though much of the skilled labor has come from abroad.
In a separate project, Red Sea Power is installing a small off-grid solar-powered desalination plant on the shore of Lake Ghoubet that will provide more and better drinking water to the villages. Currently, they get 88,000 liters per week of water, which is trucked in. Once the desalination plant begins operations, they will have 210,000 liters per week – and locals will be trained to help run the plant.
Water, electricity, and jobs are essential, but Aicha Gohar Houmad also wishes she could have trees. “There are trees and gardens that provide food for families on a daily basis,” said the vice president of Cité Moumina’s women’s association. “We were unable to do these things due to a lack of water, but we will be able to if we receive it.”
Building the country’s first utility-scale wind farm has not been without challenges, Erasmus said. The desolate moonscape around Lake Assal, scattered with basalt rocks from long-ago volcanic eruptions, can get as hot as the low 110s F (mid-40s C), with high humidity. To keep the cement for the turbines’ foundations from getting too hot, they had to mix it with ice. Much of the construction was done at night when it was cooler.
The towers have an elevator inside, with a ladder as a backup, and the windowless cabin at the top is large enough for two people to work in comfortably – though it gets hot up there, he said.
One challenge is that no spare parts were available in the country. “You cannot just go to the hardware store and buy what you need,” Erasmus said. “So planning became very vital.”
The COVID-19 pandemic also slowed things down, but finally, on Sept. 10, the blades began to turn, and the farm was operational.
More power will not only bring electricity to the many Djiboutians who lack it, but also encourage additional foreign investment in the country. Many companies have cited lack of electricity as a constraint.
And Ghoubet is just the beginning. There are plans in the works for more wind farms, including one offshore near the port of Djibouti, as well as solar and geothermal installations.
“This wind farm stands as a testament to the transformative power of the risk mitigation provided by MIGA,” said Cheikh Diagne, the senior underwriter who led the project for MIGA. “This monumental project serves as a resounding declaration to the world: Djibouti is open for business and investments, poised to harness the winds of opportunity, and proudly assumes its role as the gateway to the Horn of Africa.”