A cascade of 108 solar panels on the roof of the LydetCo building.

On the capital's outskirts, at about 400 meters from the Ayat roundabout, sits a sparkling white building with the logo LydetCo plastered all over it. A casual glance at the six-storey building reveals little to leave a lasting impression, but a closer look and one notices that no electric power lines are extending to it.

The building was operational since the dawn of the new year and solely relies on the cascading 108 solar panels on the top floor, with the design and installation of the solar system costing 2.5 million Br. The energy production of this building peaks at around 160Kwh day in the dry season, dwindling to 120Kwh with a cloud cover. The amount is close to the energy consumed by a couple of dozen households.

LydetCo Plc is a company that has been engaged in the import and distribution of solar-powered equipment for close to two decades. Its founder Dereje Walelign is a Civil Engineer who graduated from Addis Abeba University. Born and raised in the capital around 'Semien Hotel', he started the company sequential to 14 years of employment at Shell Ethiopia.

Hearing stories of people dying after retirement, sent a sense of urgency for re-evaluation to Dereje. He mustered all the funds he could find and went on a quest for self-employment. He only had a general understanding of the energy sector. British Petroleum (BP) was the only international company at the time sending solar-powered products to Ethiopia, Dereje reminisces. With a paid-up capital of 100,000 Br, he leaped on an entrepreneurial adventure importing items from BP until their exit from the sector in 2011.

Two decades later, LydetCo has a yearly turnover of about 50 million Br and around 25 permanent employees. Thousands of homes retain their lights during power outages.

For Dereje, the idea to construct a building powered by the sun ensued from growing demand in the market to have year-round electricity that is not contingent on the performance of the national grid. The building finalized construction last year and generates about five times more than needed. It has a 24-hr running elevator and power-office equipment for LydetCo and other building tenants.

Dereje Walelign, the founder of Lydetco, shows his computerised power control system.

The digital era makes it possible to monitor the performance through an app on his smartphone but Dereje comes to the office daily to oversee operations.

"I'll be working till it becomes impossible to do so," he told Fortune.

The company currently distributes two primary products: photo-voltaic - converting light to electricity- and thermal systems. The solar panels arranged on the roof of its building are cells made of Silicon which transform the energy from the sun into electricity. The second most abundant element on the Earth's crust is a commonly used material for constructing solar panels.

A researcher at Bell Labs in the 1940s discovered Silicon to be ideal for creating a junction that allows the photoelectric effect, heralded as answering the quest for limitless energy by US media.

The other line of primary products offered by LydetCo is a solar-powered water heater infusing a circulating pump, a thermal panel and a tank. The working principle requires energy collected from the sun to heat the water and store it without cooling down and distributing it when necessary from inside. The size of the system depends on the power requirements of the client. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed's (PhD) old office at the Science & Technology Bureau and hotels such as Renaissance and Soramba are among the institutions with large installations.

Although sufficient for sharing with neighbouring buildings, the absence of a legal framework for selling solar power prevents the company from spreading its wings.

The total cost of system design and installation comes with various prices depending on the power requirements and necessary battery capacity. He estimates that somewhere around 1.5 million Br is what it would cost for a suburban-style home in the capital. The system comes with a host of energy solutions that allow remote controlling, constant reporting on home power usage, and problems in the localised grid. It includes a solar panel, an inverter and batteries, other than features similar to any home electricity system.

"Empirical data collection is significant," he said.

The restless Dereje has also been working to introduce solar-powered cooking under the moniker Jember. The locally assembled solar cooker received patent rights from a US-based company that works in the same principle as the thermal heater system. With a price tag between 8000 Br - 9000 Br, it is better suited for slow cooking as it takes around two hours for a pot of 'Shiro" to get ready.

According to him, the company has around 300 cookers, while it has suspended importing raw materials due to forex shortages. His 'never quit' attitude shines through as he expects the culturally inconvenient 'Jember' absorption into the market through a promotional campaign.

"The public has to be familiarised with solar cooking," he said.

LydetCo has worked with Ethiotelecom, UNECA, and several international businesses, but the water pump installation in more than 10 areas in Afar, Oromia and Amhara regional states stays a proud moment. The company is waiting for the ratification of a directive under the Ministry of Water & Energy to build an electric car charging station.

Ethiopia has abundant solar power year-round, ready for harvest. The International Development Association (IDA) under the World Bank approved a 500 million dollar credit for the country in March 2021 to facilitate universal electrification by 2025.

Mesfin Dabi, a consultant on several projects by the Ministry of Water & Energy, sees LydetCo's approach to the energy sector as extremely promising. He outlined the benefits that a system of this caliber offers to the environment, the national grid and the companies that use it. The expert emphasised the heavy toll on the environment diesel power generation creates in factories.

He believes solar power offers an expansion of capabilities for the public. The data gathered by looking at power usage for companies using a system like LydetCo's is helpful in decision-making.

Mesfin suggests solar as an alternative energy source for small-scale factories, reasoning spending a couple of million Birr at the start is minuscule considering long-term payback periods.

"The grid system is overloaded," he said. "Solar offers an ideal alternative."

PUBLISHED ON Jan 28,2023 [ VOL 23 , NO 1187]

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