South Africa To Build World’s Biggest Solar Energy System

South Africa will soon begin building the world’s biggest solar park. It is a leap of faith in the power of the sun for renewable clean energy that will go a long way towards reducing the country’s current power shortages and is expected to cut costs as well. If ever there was a “Middle of […]


South Africa will soon begin building the world’s biggest solar park. It is a leap of faith in the power of the sun for renewable clean energy that will go a long way towards reducing the country’s current power shortages and is expected to cut costs as well.

If ever there was a “Middle of Nowhere”, then the spot chosen to locate South Africa’s mammoth solar park would fit the description perfectly. A monument to the country’s drive for meaningful renewable – or green – power, the park is destined to become the world’s biggest such endeavour.

Rising in the Upington district of the Northern Cape Province’s Kalahari scrublands, the complex will generate 5,000MW of solar clean power for feeding into the national grid, forming about 11% of the country’s current power capacity.

Naturally enough, the area is notable for the amount of sunshine that radiates onto it virtually 365 days a year, leading Energy Minister Dipuo Peters to label it “the ideal location for the park”. For those heliophiles who have put their names down to build the sun-driven, multi-faceted solar city on the 2,000ha tract of land, the sunshine quotient couldn’t be better.

Prolific job creator

The solar park will create around 12,300 construction jobs and more than 3,000 operations and maintenance jobs. It will be built in stages over nine years, with first energy output scheduled for 2014. Job creation, lucrative private and institutional investment, local industry development and a cleaner, more secure power supply is promised by the initiative. The town of Upington could double its population in that time.

The project is a partnership between the government, state power utility Eskom and the Clinton Climate Change Initiative (CCI).

The park brings together an array of solar generation systems including photovoltaic (PV), concentrated PV and concentrated solar power (CSP) using parabolic mirrors and solar tower technology.

CSP, which some energy experts describe as the intermediary step between fusion and fission power generation, captures the sun as superheat and turns massive reserves of water into hyper-heated steam to power energy-generating turbines. Its advantage is that it is cost effective, efficient, easily localised and can store heat. The park will also encourage the manufacture of the components of solar power electricity generation including photo-voltaic cells, film and mirrors; tubes, pipes, valves, pumps and steel fabrication.  

Established along the lines of IDZs (industrial development zones), the park offers subsidised land purchase, government-underwritten labour costs and housing, special tax rates and import duties for equipment and raw materials.

According to the Department of Energy, the cost of the R150bn ($22bn) park will be split between the national fiscus and private investors. The state contribution is likely to be measured in millions of rands, while private investors are expected to bring in billions. Around R1.8bn ($260m) of a R26bn ($4bn) World Bank loan to Eskom last year is being channelled into the park.

Localisation a big draw card

Solar electricity generation is an attractive proposition for emerging economies because of the generous measure of component manufacture that can be undertaken locally.

Localisation in these ‘dorps’ (villages) in the middle of nowhere is becoming a well-used buzz word. Home-grown entrepreneurs are gearing up to meet the growth and sustainability needs of the region’s fledgling electricity generating sector. In this regard the park has massive potential and could be the world’s biggest solar power localisation programme when the hosting of dozens of sun-associated factories becomes a reality.

Domestic and foreign PV cell manufacturers are reportedly queuing up for factory space in the park, obviating costly bills for importing solar receptors, according to the South African Alternative Energy Association. Potential projects include renewable energy company Solairedirect’s roof-integrated solar photovoltaic modules, while China’s largest maker of solar panels and the world’s biggest crystalline silicon photovoltaic module manufacturer, Suntech Power Holdings, has signed an MOU with local Umsimbithi Holdings to develop a 100MW solar energy plant.

China’s Yingli Solar is busy with a 10MW solar project due for later expansion to 100MW. According to the SAEA, “multiple solar technologies” are now favoured for the $20bn project to assist in the development of a solar industry in South Africa.

But big project set-up is never plain sailing and investors face a formidable obstacle course of red tape and high costs in the process. The World Bank’s IFC Doing Business 2012 reports that South Africa is ranked 44th out of 183 world economies surveyed in the “ease of doing business” category, and 8th in the African region. The departments of finance and trade and industry are working on ways to entangle the red tape that snarls up the flow of foreign money. In the meanwhile, ANC executive council member Cyril Ramaphosa has created a task force to try to clear the minefield of high costs that faces entrepreneurs hoping to cash in on the downstream flows of enterprise produced by the solar park. “We must reduce that expense,” he says, “including the cost of energy, communications, labour, transport and of unnecessary regulatory compliance.”

Milton Venetos, vice-president of systems engineering at French energy conglomerate Areva, says, “The South-South phenomenon is becoming an economic factor and we’re trying to direct the company into driving innovation that targets such countries’ specific needs,” he says. “We should be designing and manufacturing in Brazil, South Africa or India for other emerging markets. These countries have the talent and the capability of doing their own design, manufacturing and engineering. It’s an exciting economic and geographic development and we want to be involved in it.”

There’s also a lot of sense in making CSP the vanguard project at the solar park.

CSP blazes Sout Africa’s green trail

More by accident than design, it seems, a CSP (concentrated solar power) plant will be the first project to rise in the park. Excavation starts in June 2012 with the parabolic plant scheduled to start turning out 100MW of squeaky-clean electrical energy by June 2014, after just two years of build.

As part of the venture, a further 50MW of CSP will be generated by tower at a village 100km to the west with the grisly name of Pofadder (Puff adder), suitably descriptive of the surrounding wild, dusty wilderness. The tower’s construction is also due to start in June this year.

The Upington plant will operate on parabolic mirrors. Being something of an unknown quantity, the CSP project encountered a measure of coyness by such traditional energy investors as commercial banks in footing the $1.4bn bill. But such is South Africa’s faith in the CSP process that the funding was raised by the South African government’s Industrial Development Corporation and Spanish technology company Abengoa Solar, a CSP pioneer. Abengoa will own 51% of the undertaking and IDC 49%, 20% of which will be allocated to the region’s indigenous inhabitants. Power generation by any means is a thirsty business and CSP is no exception, requiring massive volumes of superheated steam to turn the turbines. It also stands to reason that in an area of so much sunshine there is correspondingly little rainfall.

The water for both the rapidly growing populations and power generation operational needs will come from the Orange River running past both Upington (population 49,000) and Pofadder (population 3,500). South Africa’s biggest waterway, the Orange, is voluminous with a year-round reliable flow and well able to support both the power plants and the doubled population that will follow the installation of the solar park. The river’s capacity notwithstanding, water-saving and efficient usage procedures are salient park operational issues.

The South African energy landscape is rocky and difficult to navigate. However, the tightly government-controlled industry finally appears to be relaxing its grip in inviting the private sector to help increase the generation and flow of electricity to a blackout-weary nation. Right now, independent power producers (IPPs) are limited to renewables but private generators have been in the cold for so long that even a few crumbs are seen as a good entry.

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