South Africa: 5GW solar park to kick off Concentrating Solar Power deployment

A positive outcome could trigger the development of South Africa’s Concentrating Solar Power market. An ambitious undertaking in South Africa, industrial gateway to the African continent, is the proposed creation of a R150 billion solar park, which on completion, would have the capacity to produce approximately 5 000 MW of renewable energy.

The project, if implemented, will be carried out in phases, with the initial phase having a capacity of 1 000 MW. The solar park would incorporate Eskom’s 100 MW concentrating solar power (CSP) plant, which has received part funding from the World Bank.

This proposed initiative does not come a moment too soon, as South Africa, a country fraught by rolling blackouts, has to increasingly turn towards alternative energy sources to help counteract its dire energy shortage and decrease its dependence on coal-fired power stations. The latter cannot be relied upon given the unreliability of South Africa’s future coal reserves for use in energy projects. Furthermore carbon emissions need to be reduced in order to adhere to international green principles and combat global warming.

Apart from lowering carbon emissions, a particular advantage of solar power is that it can be deployed relatively quickly and incrementally. Other advantages it offers are industrial development opportunities, job-creation and portfolio risk management.

Geographic viability

A prefeasibility study to assess the potential for a solar park, which was carried out by the Clinton Climate Initiative (CCI) in conjunction with South Africa’s Department of Energy, has indicated that Upington in the Northern Cape, the proposed location for the solar park, is ideal for such an initiative.

“The conditions in the Northern Cape are ideal for the establishment of a solar park primarily due to the intense solar radiation in this province,” says South Africa’s Energy Minister, Dipuo Peters.

Ira Magaziner, Chairperson of the Clinton Climate Initiative, who has travelled internationally to promote large-scale solar energy, agrees. “The Dynamics Activity Index (DAI) in the Northern Cape is among the best we have seen anywhere. The availability of land, of water, and the proximity to transmission lines make it ideal.”

Magaziner adds: “And we believe solar power if deployed in a large scale as in a solar park, can actually become more cost effective than fossil fuel fired power in South Africa.”

With regard to the technology mix, it has been reported that various proven solar technologies, such as concentrated photovoltaic solutions, and CSP technologies including power tower and trough technologies, are being examined.

According to Ministry of Energy special advisor, Jonathan de Vries, photovoltaic, which turns sun directly into electricity, would be used for peak power, CSP which can store heat would be used for base-load power. “The main guiding principle will be grid stability and the combination of Photovoltaic and Solar Thermal technologies required by South Africa to ensure security of supply,” he explains.

He continues that the first phase for the production of 1 000 MW would be built in increments from a range of solutions, and this initial phase would be used to assess the performance of the various solar technologies at the scale that has been proposed.

Green economy stimulus

A spin-off of the solar park is the contribution it would make to local manufacturing. Research conducted by the Centre for Renewable & Sustainable Energy Studies at the University of Stellenbosch, ‘Drivers for CSP in the Northern Cape’, shows that apart from attracting international manufacturers to South Africa, CSP manufacturing would create opportunities for domestic production, with resultant skills development and job creation. CSP manufacturing could become a new, local industry.

Investor response and interest shown in the solar park is to be gauged at a conference held by the South Afrcian Department of Energy in Upington on 28th and 29th October, an event which is expected to attract both local and international solar-energy developers.

Depending on investor response, site preparation for the Upington solar plant could start as early as 2011, and the first power plants could start producing by the second half of 2012.

This proposed initiative is but one element of the South African government’s goal to diversify its energy sources, to help overcome the country’s power supply crisis. In early October the Department of Energy released proposals, which form part of its draft integrated electricity resource plan, to reduce coal dependency by almost half by 2030, to more than double the use of nuclear energy and increase the use of renewable energy.

Currently 90% of electricity generation in South Africa is dependent on coal. There is only one nuclear power station, Koeberg, situated north of Cape Town, which supplies 1800 MW or 6% of the country’s energy needs. However, plans are in the pipeline to build more nuclear power plants by 2025. Renewable energy is still in its formative stages.

Figures released to the press show that the Department of Energy’s draft plan suggests that coal contribute 48% to the energy mix by 2030, followed by renewable energy (16%), then nuclear (14%), and finally a range of smaller alternative energy options. The draft plan envisages 52 248 MW of new capacity by 2030.

Commenting on the draft plan, Mike Rossouw, Chairman of the Energy Intensive Users Group of South Africa, says: “Government had a tough call to balance the competing demands of maintaining prices at reasonable levels on the one side, and on the other side to show a definite path in reducing carbon emissions in this country. Nevertheless it would appear that the draft plan has found a sense of balance between those two positions.”

While the initiatives on the table at last sound promising, talk is nevertheless easy. Securing concrete financing and then the long road ahead of implementation, will be the deciding factors as to whether or not there is light on the horizon, for a country desperately needing to balance energy supply and demand through a new combination of supply policies.

By Annabel Eaton,