A wind farm hailed as Africa’s largest renewable energy project and the solution to Lesotho’s hefty electricity costs has ground to a halt. Sechaba Mokhethi investigates why
A $15-billion wind farm project that would have given Lesotho bragging rights to Africa’s largest renewable energy project, slashed electricity prices and created thousands of jobs has vanished from the country’s planned projects, leaving behind unanswered questions and politicians who don’t remember the details.
The project was designed to increase the local energy production from 73 megawatts (MW) to 6,073MW, and would have meant the southern African country could stop importation of expensive electricity from South Africa and Mozambique.
All traces of the project, which was conceived by the South African firm Harrison & White Investments and intended to be constructed in the Mokhotlong district, have vanished. Politicians do not seem to have any explanation for this, or any knowledge that the government had a stake in the company earmarked for its construction.
In 2011 Harrison & White Investments announced its collaboration with the Lesotho government on the $15-billion (then R110-billion) wind farm project, which would have been one of the largest of its kind in the world, according to IOL News.
Construction was to be undertaken by Breeze Power, a little-known consortium in Lesotho reportedly made up of 25% shares held by the Lesotho government and 75% by Harrison & White, Chinese and other foreign investors. Reports at the time indicated the project would include 4,000 wind turbines in the highlands of the mountainous country.
However, no one seems willing to own up to knowing about the government’s stake in Breeze Power – not even Monyane Moleleki, who was minister of natural resources at the time and was associated with Harris & White’s owners.
“It is my first time hearing that the government had a stake in Breeze Power … I never committed the government to this project,” Moleleki said in an interview.
The project appears to have ground to a halt when Moleleki left the ministry and was succeeded by Timothy Thahane, who became minister of energy in 2012 following the division of the ministry of natural resources into two parts.
Thahane questions Breeze Power’s credentials, saying they were being promoted by Moleleki. “I only heard of Breeze Power and I know Moss [Leoka, the executive director] too, but when you look behind, there is no track record, no technical substance, just lies. They were a fly-by-night and I could not waste my time with them,” he said.
Leoka, the executive director of both Harrison & White and Breeze Power, indicates that Moleleki’s role in the project was more than he is admitting.
“Harrison & White and the government had signed a memorandum of agreement [MoA]. Minister Moleleki had signed the MoA on behalf of the government. The signing of the MoA followed the project’s approval by the cabinet,” Leoka said in response to questions.
Although he could not share a copy of the MoA, Leoka said Breeze Power’s shareholders were “Harrison & White Investments with 90% shareholding and the government of Lesotho with 10% shareholding. The government had the option to acquire a further 15% stake in the project at a price to be mutually agreed by the shareholders.”
Presented with these contradictions, Moleleki responded: “We might have had an MoA, but it’s not a contract. We are talking about things which happened 12 years ago and I can’t remember them.”
In 2011, Breeze Power signed an agreement with a Chinese technology partner, Ming Yang Wind Power, for the manufacture of wind turbine components to be made in factories in South Africa and Lesotho.
“We had chosen Ming Yang to be our partners due to their experience in developing wind power projects in the high mountains of north western China,” Leoka explained. “We took two representatives from the Lesotho Ministry of Energy with us on a site visit to one of their projects high up the mountains. Sadly, a few months later they pulled out of the project.”
The Lesotho companies’ register records that Moya Eco Power, a South African firm, is the sole owner of Breeze Power. The register indicates Breeze Power was incorporated in Lesotho in July 2010, with its registered office listed as a room in one of the hotels in Maseru.
Asked to explain the discrepancy between the information on the MOA and that on Breeze Power’s registration records, Leoka said after new companies are registered it is not uncommon for some details to be changed later. “[For] example, when Breeze Power was registered we had not yet appointed a board of directors, so a few names had to be used so that the company could be registered.”
Moleleki admits having had several meetings with Harrison & White representatives, but denies ever committing the government to the project.
In 2015 his party came back into power. The following year a letter signed by Selibe Mochoboroane, who was the minister of energy at the time, was sent to R20 – Regions of Climate Action (a non-profit organisation that aims to bring together local authorities, technology providers and investors in their quest to promote renewable energy projects) introducing Breeze Power as the identified source of funding and also an engineering, procurement and construction contractor for this project.
However, the minister of development planning, responsible for approving all government projects, Mochoboroane said that the wind farm project is no longer in the government pipeline.
He said his signature on the letter to R20 might have been forged. Part of it reads: “We welcome R20’s initiative to work alongside governments … in accelerating the emergence of low-carbon climate-resilient infrastructure projects. We hereby mandate R20 to explore opportunities for the development of such projects within the Kingdom of Lesotho, specifically … wind farming.”
Mochoboroane said the signature “looks like mine. But one thing I am sure of is that I am not the one who wrote that letter, even if it was signed by myself. I am just so clueless about it. Maybe its proponents found a way to make me pass this letter on their behalf”.
At the time the project was being planned, Moleleki in his capacity as minister of natural resources hailed the initiative, saying it would help Lesotho achieve “developing country status”.
“I was very enthusiastic about the project, so much so that I talked about it on the BBC,” he said in a recent interview.
He said South Africa has long supplied Lesotho with “what is probably the cheapest energy, yet very polluting” and he had hoped to change that situation with this project by creating renewable green power and exporting it to South Africa. “It was an exciting, mouth-watering prospect,” Moleleki added.