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[ANTANANARIVO] Madagascar is aiming to plug its energy gap and reduce its carbon emissions by encouraging a major investment in large-scale wind-turbines, the country's interim president, Andry Rajoelina, has announced.  

"An additional 50 megawatts [from wind power] could be available by the end of the year," he said last month (11 January). Unofficial figures put the cost of the initiative at US$80 million.

But the project has faced criticism from local experts who claim the country has better renewable energy options.

To push the wind project forward, a special unit has been established in the office of the president, and the government will halve taxes in the 2012/13 financial year on imported equipment such as rotors for wind turbines to attract private sector involvement. The tax benefits will extend to hydropower turbines and solar panels, but the main thrust of the government's move is focused on expanding the wind energy sector.

Rajoelina said technologies currently used to produce electricity on the island are outdated and environmentally hazardous because of carbon emissions and pollution.  

More than 110 diesel power stations currently supply 296.5 megawatts of the total installed capacity of 428.1 megawatts, according to Jiro sy Rano Malagasy, the national water and electricity company. The Energy Options for Madagascar conference in Antananarivo, held in December, heard that Madagascar's electricity need is expected to reach 700 megawatts by 2030.

And about 95 per cent of households rely on firewood for cooking, resulting in large-scale deforestation.

Both factors have led the government to announce the need for a major investment in wind energy to meet the country's energy needs. But some have questioned its belief that this can be done through installing large wind turbines.

"Wind energy is not a realistic solution for us. It is not suitable for local conditions," said Minoson Rakotomalala, a renewable energy expert at the University of Antananarivo.

He warned that installing the large turbines usually found in a wind farm requires a lengthy preliminary study, which has not been done. It is difficult to control for the wind speed, and usually turbine rotors are built for the airflow characteristics of a location, Rakotomalala said.

Local technicians do not have the know-how for systems that exceed 20 kilowatts, added Hary Andriatavy, acting executive secretary of the Rural Electrification Development Agency.

Instead of importing costly infrastructure, the country should make micro-wind power stations from locally available materials, he said.

Small-scale wind power projects have been successful in northern Madagascar, and are expected to grow, according to Andriatavy.

"Southern Madagascar has huge potential for wind power," added Vony Ramboaharison, marketing director at Energie Technologie, a company based in Antananarivo that supplies equipment for the renewable energy market.

Rakotomalala agreed that wind energy could work in some areas of Madagascar, but said it should be the last option as the country has great potential in hydropower, followed by tidal energy, biomass, biogas and geothermal energy.

To date, only 1.6 per cent of the existing hydropower capacity — estimated at eight gigawatts — is being exploited, while other sources are barely developed, he said.