EDF’s Valérie Levkov – ‘In Africa, the solution lies in the mix between solar and battery power’
From start-up support, to equity investment, hydraulic potential and the energy mix, the Africa director of the French state-controlled power utility EDF explains the company's innovation strategy on the continent.
Valérie Levkov became head of the Africa, Middle East and the Eastern Mediterranean division in 2015.
She has more than 30 years of experience in positions ranging from research and development (R&D) to finance, internal communication and the development of the European Pressurised Reactors (EPR) sector internationally.
An engineer by training, she pays particular attention to innovation in the sector.
And this November, the annual EDF Pulse Africa Competition will award three prizes to African start-ups and, for the first time, SMEs, for the best innovative projects related to energy development.
The competition allows the French power utility to support local, innovative solutions by African innovators and entrepreneurs thanks to the monitoring work of four incubators: Boukarou in Cameroon, Motion in Senegal, Impact Hub in Ghana and Energy Generation in Togo. She spoke to Jeune Afrique in Paris while inbetween trips to the field.
Jeune Afrique: EDF likes mastering its entire value chain. Could you eventually absorb the start-ups you are rewarding as part of the Pulse Prize?
Valerie Levkov: I don’t like the word “absorb” because it doesn’t fit our philosophy in Africa at all. Take the example of the Ivorian group Conergies-Group, in which we have a 49% stake. We bring all the know-how of our subsidiary Dalkia to it. We are therefore more involved in philosophies of partnership, support and skills transfer.
In which instances do you decide to acquire a stake in a company?
In general, this is due to a need for capital, so we also support them economically, but without taking control. We only want to become their long-term strategic industrial partner.
Do you have R&D activities on the continent?
No. EDF’s R&D supports me on the continent in specific niches such as off-grid, where we work a lot on the technological validation of solutions. Our R&D is the guarantee of the quality of the batteries and solar panels produced on site.
In terms of innovation, what have you learned from the continent?
From our first cohort of Pulse prize winners, we discovered the Ivorian start-up Lono, which makes household biodigesters for cooking. It is frugal technology that addresses one of the continent’s major concerns, and one we continue to monitor very closely.
One of the major energy projects is the storage of renewable energy in batteries. Where is EDF on this subject?
The first field of application is the lithium-ion battery for domestic uses such as for lighting, cooking or television. We do this in Africa, as well as in Europe and Asia through an off-grid [solution], which combines solar panels, a battery and mobile payment. A second, more ambitious, component has just begun and targets industrial and commercial customers with the same type of solutions, but on a more industrial scale and for larger areas. In this context, we have entered into a partnership with the decentralised energy production subsidiary of the Zimbabwean group Econet.
Can you run a data centre with solar energy alone?
That is the objective. But renewable energy currently needs something that can compensate for its fluctuation. Hence the existence of batteries. Most of the time, professional customers have access to the network. The solution will therefore be a mix between solar energy, batteries and the grid. Smaller customers, on the other hand, can be completely off-grid. In Africa, these solutions could be developed on a larger scale than in Europe.
On the other hand, the most powerful storage is in pumped energy transfer stations (Step). It is a hydroelectric solution that we originally developed in France and the Middle East. Morocco has one, designed by EDF for ONEE. The rest of the continent is beginning to take an interest in it.
How much does it cost?
On the off-grid, our offers range from seven to 20 euros per month, depending on the country and the offer. For industrial and commercial customers, the answer is more complicated because the solutions are designed on a case-by-case basis, according to energy needs, the surface [area] to be covered with panels, the roof covering, etc.
In the long run, could renewable energy be self-sufficient and no longer just a compensator for fossil energy?
Currently, for a megawatt hour of renewable energy, it is almost necessary to have a megawatt hour in support, so the energy mix will remain for a long time to come, with massive basic needs, which implies controllable means such as nuclear, gas or hydraulic. In Africa, the hydraulic base is very important.
Speaking of which, what do you bring to the Nachtigal Dam project, which is supposed to supply one third of Cameroon’s electricity?
Innovation is not technological. It is found in the development model. We have signed a public-private partnership with the Government of Cameroon to create an independent power producer (IPP), [that is] 15% owned by the state. All financing is private. We have called on 11 multilateral and four local banks, which represents a huge financial engineering for a long-awaited project. The dam offers one kilowatt-hour for six cents.
What are the possible innovations in hydraulics?
On the continent, the main differentiating development axis is found in the Step. Our hydraulic engineering has several contracts to support governments on feasibility studies, notably in Lesotho. Overall, due to their geology, Southern and Eastern Africa are the main target regions.
What do you bring to your local partners?
On the off-grid, we bring our operator know-how: processes, like how to deploy, how to recruit, train; and health and safety. Local start-ups are also linked to our R&D on battery life and size or for photovoltaic tests. Finally, we provide access to financing with our NEoT Offgrid Africa fund, [which is] dedicated to off-grid and developed in partnership with Meridiam and Mitsubishi.
Do you work with other technology companies such as Siemens or Schneider Electric?
Yes, they are technology providers. The BBOXX pilot in Togo was developed with GE and we are talking with Schneider elsewhere.
How much does EDF invest in innovation each year?
In 2018, EDF invested €580 million in all its R&D projects combined. And as part of our Electric Storage Plan, [which is] directly linked to our activities in Africa, EDF has planned to invest €70 million in research on electric storage between 2018 and 2020.
Do you have African researchers in your R&D teams?
Yes, we have many PhD students of African origin and binationals.
How many partnerships do you have on the continent?
In total, we have about 20 partnerships on the continent. Our high-profile partnerships are those with the start-up SunCulture in Kenya, in which we have a 49% stake, the BBOXX joint venture in Togo, and the ZOLA Electric joint venture, which we own with the American Off Grid Electric and which operates in Ghana, Nigeria, Rwanda and Tanzania.
In Côte d’Ivoire, we are working with the SIFCA group on the biomass power plant project, Biovéa. We are also linked to Conergies-Group for the whole of West Africa. There are also industrial partnerships in Zambia, Morocco and Egypt, but they are currently confidential.
This article first appeared in Jeune Afrique.