Local content is key as First Solar looks to SA

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Dubai - It is only a few minutes after 10am and it is a scorching hot day in Dubai. The control system of the 59 hectare photovoltaic (PV) plant that US solar firm First Solar has built in the middle of the desert reads an output of 9.4 megawatts.

That was the amount of PV power that the 13MW plant was already generating that early in the morning. But the plant manager said the power output on this day was not at its optimum level as the radiance level sat at 786 watts a square metre.

On a normal day, the radiance level is 1 kilowatt per square metre of the plant. With that radiance, the plant can easily produce between 11MW and 13MW of power.

The fact that thin PV film is used instead of silicone, which is the case in most PV plants, is what helps the solar farm in Dubai generate power up to its full capacity.

First Solar is the leader in the production of advanced thin film PV solar technology. Thin PV film reacts better at high temperature and in very humid environments. The plant uses a 1 000V DC system, meaning it has a maximum potential of 1 000 volts. A car battery’s voltage for instance is 12V DC. Each one of the plant’s modules is rated 85W.

Although localisation was not a requirement when the Dubai Electricity and Water Authority awarded the bid to build the plant to First Solar, 50 percent of the entire project was sourced within Abu Dhabi and Dubai. This included all steel structures, all building materials, transformers and the construction.

First Solar’s approach to localisation was the same wherever it went, the company said. And this was the plan it had for South Africa too.

“We’ve done this everywhere where the technology is available locally,” said Laura Luckhurst, the business development manager for sub-Saharan Africa. “In South Africa we’ll do the steel fabrication locally and we are localising our tracker. Over the long term, in three to four years, our goal is to have 100 percent local content for the trackers.”

Currently, 63 percent of the firm’s single-axis trackers in its South African projects consists of local content. The trackers are used on the panels to track the direction of the sun.

Considering that the Trade and Industry Department considered imported steel, fabricated locally, as 100 percent local content for steel, Luckhurst said First Solar would do economic analysis when deciding whether to source its steel in South Africa, where prices are considered uncompetitive.

“There are shipping costs that one has to bear in mind. Will it not be better to pay a little extra to get the steel locally and eliminate those transport costs? That’s something we’d have to sit down and weigh which one makes economic sense for us.”

Half of First Solar’s market share comes from projects with a capacity of 100MW and above. Its biggest project is in California where it has two 550MW AC plants. The project occupies 4 000ha of land.

But the company is now making its way into the market of smaller PV projects and considers the Middle East and Africa region as its prime target markets for this.

First Solar and other international firms, and even the World Bank, consider South Africa one of the continent’s “hot spots” for renewable energies because it already has a roadmap to integrate cleaner fuels into its energy plan.

* Londiwe Buthelezi was sponsored by First Solar to attend the World Future Energy Summit.


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