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Solar Power: Finally, Coming to South Africa

By Stacy Feldman

Oct 14, 2009

Coal-addicted South Africa may be on the verge of going solar. More than that, the nation could become the springboard for a solar rise in the whole sun-rich region.

On Oct. 9, the government of South Africa and the Clinton Climate Foundation signed a memorandum of understanding to develop the nation's first "solar park." The project could add up to 5,000 MW of grid-connected solar to South Africa's energy mix, which currently stands at close to zero.

The first step is a feasibility study to size up the commercial potential of the project — the solar radiation, land availability, transmission access and cost, water, job creation, among other things.

Of course, pledging to make a business plan is not the same as pledging to break ground — but it's a start. And it comes amid other signs that South Africa is getting serious about its solar future.

For one, national utility giant Eskom has stated that its on-again, off-again plans for a concentrating solar power (CSP) facility, the first on the continent, are on again.

For years, the state-owned Eskom, one of the world's biggest power companies and largest carbon polluters, had plans on the books for a 100-MW electrical CSP facility in the Northern Cape. But six months ago, the cash-strapped utility abruptly put the $814 million plant on hold.

No longer. Eskom now claims to have a budget of $4.1 billion for solar and smart grid pilot demonstrations over the next 10 years. That money would cover the cost of the CSP plant, said Eskom Technology, Strategy and Planning Manager Barry MacColl at the recent ISES Solar World Congress, although he added the budget still must get approved.

If the plant gets completed, it will supposedly drop South Africa from the world's 15th biggest carbon dioxide emitter to the 25th.

CSP systems are comprised of giant arrays of solar mirrors that concentrate direct desert sunlight to drive a conventional steam turbine and generate electricity. They're often cited as the most likely zero-emission technology to rival coal-fired power.

In South Africa, CSP potential is enormous. Estimates put capacity at 540,000 MW for the whole country.For context, the total electricity generating capacity of South Africa today is around 40,000 MW.

No wonder Google-funded CSP-developer eSolar wants in. The California startup just announced that it will be partnering with Johannesburg-based Clean Energy Solutions (CES) to open eSolarSA. The company will sell its technology in South Africa and six other Sub-Saharan African nations.

eSolar burst onto the solar scene in 2008 with its breakthrough, pre-fab solar power towers. The company's lego-like 46-megawatt modules can scale up to any size. They're designed for rapid construction, uniform modularity and unlimited scalability, the company says. And they're relatively cheap, ideal for Africa:

"eSolar's CSP technology is the perfect fit for South Africa in its quest to generate affordable, clean energy and develop local jobs, particularly in rural areas," said Stuart Fredman, managing director of South Africa's CES.

Fredman added that eSolar could help "establish Southern Africa as a new hotspot for solar development."

That won't be easy. South Africa is 90 percent dependent on coal.

The government's 4 percent renewable energy target by 2013 is expected to partially help usher in a new market for solar. And so will this: New coal power is no longer that cheap. The price of coal in South Africa has climbed steeply in the last three years, and the climate costs of fossil fuels in a coming, carbon-constrained are starting to be factored in. On top of that, energy shortages started hitting the country in 2008, making it clear that new, cleaner and cheaper sources are needed.

Solar power

Always an interesting debate. We need to seperate the discussion about solar water heating and solar energy production. Solar water heating is very viable, but the photovoltaic cells used to generate solar energy are very inefficient. This will have to improve, as well the cost of silicon must drop, the cost of manufacture must drop, the energy used to produce cells must drop and the cost and efficiency of batteries needs to improve.

Costs Need To Come Down

This is an amazing opportunity for South Africia, but as mentioned earlier, costs will probably have to come down significantly for the it to be utilized effectively.

I`m not sure Desertec type

I`m not sure Desertec type solar plants would be as beneficial to SA along with the rest of the continent. Transmittion would add much more to the cost in areas with less developed infrastructure. Money would be better spent on community projects and roof top solar production.

solar power

Whatever happened to the South African invention of cheap solar panels that could have changed the face of our power problems fairly rapidly?

Using solar power

Collecting and using solar power has had marginal success over the last several years. It would be wonderful if South Africa could utilize this source but the jury is still out. We need to see that solar power works and we need to see that it's more economical than the alternatives.casino online

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