SA is perfectly placed to reap the benefits of solar energy technology


A recent study by the CSIR has found that during the first half of 2015, renewable energy from SA’s first solar photovoltaic (PV) and wind projects had a total net benefit to the economy of R4 billion, exceeding their tariff of R4.3 billion. Based on some initial modelling it has done, together with input from the CSIR, the South African Renewable Energy Council believes that if the country follows an aggressive expansion plan, by 2030 the country could find itself in a position in which it has as much as 40% of its energy delivered by renewable sources – wind, solar and gas.

SA may have been slow to start but it has caught up and is now considered one of the most attractive destinations worldwide for renewables.

The country’s Renewable Energy Independent Power Producer Procurement (REIPPP) programme is lauded as one of the most successful renewable energy plans in the world. The programme forms an integral part of the Department of Energy’s (DOE) roll-out of renewable energy, and involves a bidding process for the procurement of renewable energy from independent power producers.

‘The REIPPP has been a huge success story that has encouraged local and foreign developers of renewable energy projects to join the bidding process that has seen the DOE award preferred bidder status to no less than 92 project developers to date, in four bidding rounds, with a nominal capacity of 6 243 MW,’ says David Dyer, divisional executive for consumer products and renewable energy at Marsh Africa.

‘An expedited bidding round, which has been dubbed Round 4.5, will see another tranche of projects being awarded preferred bidder status before the end of 2015, aimed at procuring another 1 800 MW before the introduction of a new tender framework from Round 5, in 2016.’

Renewable energy is thus far the only solution that has come online within the time frames of the challenge SA is trying to meet as far as electricity stability and efficiency is concerned.

Moeketsi Thobela, CEO of the South African Photovoltaic Industry Association says that some 2 302 MW of PV has already been procured in terms of the programme – almost equivalent to the amount of PV expected to be committed to by 2019. This implies that progress in procurement is at least four years ahead of schedule, he says. But is the country doing enough as far as renewable energy is concerned? According to Thobela, the answer to this is twofold. ‘Yes, considering the progress made in the REIPPP,’ he says. ‘No, considering that more could be done to relieve the electricity supply-consumption imbalance in the short term, taking into account proven project delivery and improved affordability of the technology.’

Renewable energy in SA is currently in an extremely good place. The country has abundant solar resources, as well as enough land to build large-scale projects. In fact, SA has approximately double the solar resources found in Europe.

Greg Austin, MD of Juwi Renewable Energies, the SA subsidiary of Juwi Group, says that while our utilisation is ‘extremely low’, it is growing at a rapid rate and can only get better.

‘The opportunities for growth in the PV sector are enormous,’ he says. ‘Out of all the renewables, solar is the most available, the most widespread and the most predictable energy source. I honestly believe there’s no practical limit to how much solar we can provide into the grid.’

He adds that within a few years, the country will be able to present renewables such as solar as a baseload power provider, which he says will be revolutionary (baseload being the constant or permanent load on a power supply).

Chris Sachse, a systems engineer at Sinetech, an electronic engineering company that designs solar PV and power backup systems, and is one of the largest distributors of solar power components in Africa, believes that SA’s solar industry is still in its infancy, especially when compared to other countries such as Germany.

‘The advantage that South Africa has over the majority of European countries is the high levels of solar radiation and relatively mild temperatures, specifically in Gauteng and the surrounding areas,’ he says. ‘This means that solar systems in South Africa can be up to 40% smaller than a system in Germany but still produce the same energy.’ He adds that this leads to major cost savings, shorter payback periods and many opportunities for both small-scale and residential solar industries in SA.

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‘Solar systems in South Africa can be up to 40% smaller than a system in Germany but still produce the same energy’


According to Austin, local companies are exploiting the opportunities that solar presents in two major ways. Firstly on the energy storage side, through the selling of uninterruptible power supply-type systems; and secondly, through the design and manufacture of PV system components.

The rapid growth of the sector has also brought with it opportunities for partnership on a public-private sector level, as well as between large companies and smaller ones.

‘I think certainly on the regulatory side we’ve seen massive partnerships happening under the REIPPP because of the BEE and EE aspects of the plan. One is seeing a lot more smaller players being pulled into the overall delivery of a particular scope by a contractor, for example. That’s working nicely,’ says Austin.

‘In the commercial space, where you’ve got an interesting interface between larger and smaller companies, we will still see many partnerships unfolding between different entities. I can’t say it exists much in practice yet, because most of the projects are at a scale where they are being undertaken by smaller companies. But larger companies are getting into the private, 1 MW scale, which will lead to these partnerships.’

Juwi is currently working on a huge solar project in the Northern Cape – the 86 MW Mulilo Sonnedix Prieska PV solar park. Construction began in May and is expected to be complete within 14 months of this. The project covers an area measuring roughly 150 rugby fields, and will produce enough energy to power 50 000 homes. As part of the REIPPP, this energy will be fed straight into the Eskom grid.

According to Austin, the company is pleased with the progress of the project. ‘It’s got fantastic local content, and we are by far and above exceeding our content obligations as committed to the Department of Energy. This is really good for the economy as it means we are buying more locally than what we even committed to.’

The mechanical completion is scheduled for June 2016, by which time Eskom should have completed the transmission line upgrades. ‘This means we can energise the plant and do live commissioning in around August next year,’ says Austin.

A prime example of a successful commercial solar project can be found in Cape Town, at Black River Park, home to what was until very recently the largest roof-mounted solar PV system in Southern Africa. Boasting one of the most tech-nologically advanced systems in the world, the Black River Park operation generates as much as 1.9 GW (or 1.9 million KW hours) annually, enough to meet the needs of all of the park’s tenants – the equivalent of enough power to run 1 000 average-sized houses.

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The system is expected to operate for at least 25 years, though it is set to pay off its installation costs within the first seven.

Customer demand for PV solutions has grown radically in recent years, with thousands of private installations having already been completed. ‘The incremental growth rate is 20% to 30% year-on-year, so the demand is increasing massively,’ says Austin. With regard to commercial projects, he says SA is ‘on the cusp’ of having a whole range of office blocks and shopping malls going onto PV, and notes that Juwi itself currently has a pipeline of 35 projects on the 1 MW scale.

Energy storage, however, will be the real game changer, because ‘then PV will be viewed as a baseload generator’, he says.

As Sachse explains, solar solutions are becoming increasingly popular as people realise the advantages that these offer in terms of cost saving, reliability of supply and environmental impact.

‘South Africa has been focusing on self-storage and self-consumption, a trend that is becoming more and more popular across the world due to the complications caused by multiple small sources feeding into the grid from different locations,’ he says.

‘Thus, the ever-increasing cost of electricity together with the decreasing cost of solar can and, I believe, will result in a large boom within the solar industry.

‘If done with the correct balance of self-storage and grid feeding, South Africa has the potential to stabilise the grid, as well as become one of the leading nations with regard to solar energy.’

By Toni Muir
Image: Gallo/GettyImages