South Africa to build world’s largest Concentrating Solar Power plant

South Africa has tabled its plans to build what could be the world’s biggest Concentrating Solar Power project to hundreds of investors from around the globe at a recent two-day conference, which was organized to generate funds for the multi-billion dollars solar thermal project set to be financed mainly by private investors.

The two-day Solar Park Investors Conference, organized by the South African Department of Energy, saw more than 400 investors from South Africa and other foreign countries including France, Spain, India as well as the United States make way to the small town of Upington,situated in the country’s Northern Cape Province, to learn more about the Solar Park project.

”It give me a great pleasure to be afforded the opportunity to address the Solar Park Investors Conference. This is one of the memorable days in our calendar as it marks the beginning of a progressive shift towards clean renewable energy technologies in our country’, South Africa’s Minister of Energy Dipuo Peters said at the opening of the conference.

”Your presence reaffirms that a transition into a low carbon economy is no longer just a wish by certain sectors of the society, but instead it is a country commitment driven with full support of our political and government leadership… such diversity in our energy mix is a cornerstone of energy policy.”

The project will need an investment of 21.4 billion U.S. dollars to get off the ground.

The South African government will provide infrastructure for the solar energy project, then lease it out to private developers who would finance and build individual projects that would sell power to the South African electricity grid.

”It is agreeable that government alone cannot manage and fund the transition to a green economy. Therefore local and international private sector companies as well as civil society also have a significant role to play in advancing a green economy future,” Peters pointed out.

South Africa signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the non- profit Clinton Climate Initiative, a program sponsored by former U. S.president Bill Clinton charitable foundation, in October 2009, in which they agreed to collaborate in the implementation of curbing the use of conventional energy in favor of solar energy.

The two have since been working tirelessly to bring the project to light.In essence, the Solar Park will use large lenses or mirrors and tracking systems to focus a large area of sunlight into a small beam.The concentrated light will then be used as a heat source for a conventional power plant.

CCI has conducted a pre-feasibility study into the potential of creating a Solar Park in South Africa. The study found that the country’s Northern Cape Province, which sits at the edge of the Kalahari Desert, was the perfect location for the project.

CCI found that the province had excellent and consistent sunlight and has the ability to connect to the South African electricity grid at multiple points.

Another decisive factor making the province an ideal location for the project is that water is always available in the province from the Orange River.

In addition, Northern Cape has a developed highway system and the province’s Upington Airport also makes it an ideal location for solar deployment.

”Numerous regions of the province meet most, if not all, of the key criteria…based on these positive results, a decision was taken to proceed with full feasibility study for Solar Park,” Peters said.

Peters said that the South African government hopes that the Solar Park will generate a capacity of 1,000 Megawatts as early as 2012 and a total of 5,000 Megawatts in the next 10 years, which is the approximate amount produced by the biggest coal-fired stations in South Africa.

Therefore, the Solar Parks hold the potential to alleviate South Africa’s long-time dependence on coal for its energy supply.

The project is part of the South African government’s plan to create 300,000 ”green economy” jobs in the country by 2020. It is estimated that the Solar Park project will create 12,300 construction jobs annually in South Africa and 3,010 operations and maintenance jobs by the time the last solar plant is constructed in the country.

”President Jacob Zuma convened a special Cabinet meeting to discuss the key economic challenges facing South Africa and endorsed a proposed new growth path for the country that will place employment at the center of government economic policy,” Peters explained.

”The new growth path is a broad framework that sets out a vision and identifies key areas where jobs can be created.”

Aside from its economic benefits, the South African government hopes that the project would also make the country a global leader in solar energy.

”As we contribute toward the low carbon economy foot print and Clean Energy Ministerial Initiatives the Solar Park initiative position South Africa very well as an active participating government in the Global Wind and Solar Atlas endorsed at the Washington Clean Energy Ministerial of July 2010.”

Ompi Aphane, acting deputy director general of South Africa’s department of energy, said at the closing of the conference that investors were very keen about the project even though it was still in the planning stage.

According to Aphane, a billion-dollar investment proposal was even made by a European developed firm at the event.

”I think we have achieved what we came here to do, which was to try to get investors to be exposed to the plans we have as a country to diversify our energy mix and reduce our carbon emissions…a lot of positive feedback came out of it,” Aphane said.

”There’s a lot that’s out there in the market about our urgent need for capacity and I think investors want to take advantage of that particularly if it’s clean energy…It’s unbelievable how some of the developers want to take development risk and put their money into the project even without any definition of the process. ”

Peters said that at the moment comprehensive details of the Solar Park project were still being worked at, but ensured that they will be completed this month. After the full details of the project are made known, they will then start to build the park.

Negotiations would then begin on power purchasing agreements with independent solar power producers who meet the conditions that would have been set and wish to participate in the project.

by Emmanuel Tjiya,