South African Research Company Works Towards 100% Renewables

CSIR leads by example by installing a 558kW ground-mounted solar photovoltaic plant on its campus.
Published: Thu 04 Feb 2016

The Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) recently revealed the economic value of renewable energy to South Africa’s  electricity consumers in its 2014 report, ‘Financial benefits of renewables in South Africa in 2014’ [CSIR’s Report Points to Financial Benefits of Renewables in South Africa]. The report highlights the fact that renewable energy could help the country overcome its growing energy crisis where tariffs are escalating as a result of mismanagement in the power sector. [Time to Privatise South Africa’s Power Sector.]

‘Walk the Talk’

CSIR is now ‘walking the talk’ as its 558kW ground-mounted solar photovoltaic (PV) plant, installed on the Pretoria campus, becomes fully operational. The initial testing was completed last year.

This project forms part of the research facility’s aim of running its Pretoria campus 100% on renewable power, eventually becoming independent of the grid.

The US$183 million (ZAR10.7 million) single axis tracker plant, was managed by South African renewable energy services and solutions provider, juwi Renewable Energy.

The plant can rotate the PV modules to track the path of the sun, enabling it to yield more than 20% of additional solar energy a year than a similarly sized fixed ground-mounted PV plant.

While the production yield from a fixed-inclination rooftop PV plant is slightly lower than that from a tracking system, the absence of complex tracking components together with the fact that the plant can often be connected directly to a low voltage (LV) distribution board means that rooftop PV can deliver electricity at an even lower LCOE.

In addition, a rooftop installation is expected to produce more electricity for a given area on an inclined roof as the panels are installed end to end, whereas on the ground, the panels are spaced to reduce shading. On an inclined rooftop there is better utilisation of the sun’s energy.

Setting the renewables benchmark for South Africa

According to managing director of juwi, Greg Austin, this plant is a flagship project for the company and will set the benchmark for distributed renewable energy in South Africa. CSIR will verify the performance of this plant against the original design and share the knowledge with the broader community, the results of which will be well received since the research body is a well respected entity.

By pushing the market towards the lowest cost per kilowatt-hour offered over the project’s full lifetime, CSIR demonstrates that it is possible for public entities to procure smaller-scale renewable energy facilities at rates that undercut traditional grid-sourced electricity tariffs.

According to Austin, the levelised cost of electricity (LCOE) from the project allows juwi to achieve a cost of 83c/kWh over the plant’s lifespan by utilising the CSIR’s LCOE model.

According to media, the plant will generate an estimated 3.5 million kWh in its first three years of operation. Currently, the solar power is not fed back to the central grid mostly because the research centre uses all of the generated power. According to a spokesperson at CSIR, the centre’s electricity demand exceeds the solar generation output currently.

Dr. Tobias Bischof-Niemz, Centre Manager: Energy, CSIR, Pretoria, told Engerati that this solar PV plant is just the first step towards the implementation of a larger programme that will take CSIR until 2020 to conclude. Details for the roll-out are currently being developed.

Business takes action

An increasing number of local commercial and industrial operations have been looking at generating their own power in an attempt to reduce their electricity bills and secure a more reliable source of power.

According to the CSIR, residential-sized photovoltaic systems are already a cost-competitive alternative to other new-build options, coming in at an estimated 81c/kWh versus 80c/kWh at Medupi or Kusile power stations. This solar power cost includes financing at an interest rate of 9%.

Consumers are catching on quickly and, as the National Energy Regulator of South Africa (Nersa) notes, there has been a great increase in the installation of private rooftop photovoltaic systems over the past year. Their total peak capacity is only about 10MW at present but if demand is stimulated the CSIR estimates it could quickly reach 500MW/year. It is estimated that South Africa’s energy needs will double to almost 90GW of installed capacity by 2030, and rooftop and commercial photovoltaic power could grow to account for as much as 22.5GW of this requirement.

A good example of this is Vodacom, a large telecoms company, which proudly unveiled its solar panel installation in 2013. It is the largest array of solar panels on a single building in Africa. The 542kWp solar system, on the roof of its Century City building in Cape Town, comprises 2,127 solar panels and is to provide up to 75% of all electricity required by the building during peak production. Vodacom chief officer of corporate affairs Maya Makanjee announced at the time that through this installation, Vodacom aims to demonstrate that business can take the lead in promoting renewable-energy solutions and stimulate the green economy. The rooftop solar project cost R10 million, but Vodacom said it expected to register a cost-saving of at least R1 million a year.

While Eskom struggles to avert an ongoing energy crisis, South African households and businesses can generate their own solar  power at a cost per kilowatt that rivals that of megaprojects such as the abovementioned power stations, without subsidies or incentives.

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