Solar plants shine on Pofadder businesses

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Jaco Visser

Ramone van Wyk’s wage more than quadrupled when he gave up working on sheep farms in the Northern Cape and got a job assembling a solar-thermal power plant for Abengoa.

“I’ve never earned this kind of salary,” Van Wyk, 35, said in the lounge of a small two-bedroom home he shares with his parents, wife, two siblings and daughter in Pofadder, a one-hotel town near the Namibia border.

Van Wyk’s monthly wage jumped to R6 500 as South Africa’s largest province is transformed by the government’s energy policies. The initiative has touched off Africa’s biggest boom in renewable power and is creating jobs in a country where unemployment has been near 25 percent for the past four years.

Clean-energy developers are being lured by government incentives and up to 360 days of sunshine a year. The Department of Energy is targeting renewable energy capacity of 3 725 megawatts by 2016 from the R120 billion programme. Last year renewables accounted for less than 1 percent of the energy supply.

The programme has made South Africa the only African nation among the top 20 solar markets, with installations comparable to South Korea, Thailand and Israel, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

South Africa generates about 85 percent of its electricity from coal. The addition of solar is intended to help end a power shortage that in 2008 led to the closure of mines for five consecutive days. Businesses from factories to aluminium smelters are now encouraged to cut their usage by 10 percent to prevent a recurrence.

The Northern Cape is the location of 31 of the 64 projects so far allocated in the government’s renewables programme, which covers wind, concentrated and photovoltaic solar, landfill gas and biomass power.

“The nature of the renewable energy investment speaks favourably to the theme of more enduring inflows into South Africa,” said Goolam Ballim, the chief economist at Standard Bank, which has underwritten R16.8bn of projects in the programme.

Eskom will buy the electricity from the projects for 20 years. It currently pays independent energy producers 84c a kilowatt-hour.

The plants will bring economic diversity to the Northern Cape’s Bushmanland and Kalahari regions, which are home to sheep farms and vineyards that make the nation the second-largest table-grape exporter and sixth-biggest raisin producer.

They are already bringing more diversity to Pofadder’s food markets, as an influx of Spaniards working for the main contractor, Spain-based Abengoa, spur demand for foods such as saffron and fish.

Investment in clean energy in South Africa increased more last year than any other country in the world, rising 206-fold to $5.5bn (R56.9bn), according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance. Solar installations may reach capacity of 187MW this year and 601MW next year, up from 7MW last year.

Even with the surge in renewable energy installations, 28 percent of people seeking work are jobless in the Northern Cape, the third-highest unemployment rate among the nine provinces, according to Statistics SA data.

Van Wyk works at KaXu Solar One, a 100MW solar-thermal plant about 70km north-east of Pofadder. The town of about 5 000 is 916km west of Johannesburg.

The solar project would employ an average of 950 people during construction and as many as 2 000 at peak times, Abengoa said.

Abengoa also owns 40 percent of a group that was awarded the 100MW Xina Solar One project on October 29. It will be built next to KaXu to form Africa’s biggest solar power complex, according to the company.

“I worked on a farm previously,” said Grant Parsons, a crane operator at KaXu, which will cover 310ha. “I get a lot more money at the solar site than on the farms. This is a big thing for Pofadder.”

Abengoa said there would be 36 full-time staff handling operations once the KaXu plant was completed.

The work had created an accommodation shortage, said Suretha Britz, who co-owns Pofadder’s only hotel, where seven rooms were added to raise capacity by 25 percent. At another property, she quadrupled the number of chalets to 20 and hired 15 people.

“Rent has jumped from around R3 500 to R11 000 a month over the last six months for a three-bedroom house,” said Annas van der Merwe, a property lawyer in the area.

Shop owners have extended hours to cater to construction workers and engineers.

“Sales volumes have increased,” said Franco Robberts, the owner of the only bakery. “When the workers return to town from the solar farm at about 6pm the town’s like an antheap.”

Grocers are stocking new products including ciabatta bread and olive oil. The town’s only restaurant, at Britz’s Pofadder Hotel, has also changed its menu.

“We can’t keep up with orders,” she said.

“We opened a pizzeria because the Spaniards love pizza. We also had to adjust our menu because the Spaniards like pork, chicken and fish and we mainly serve lamb.”

The largest supermarket in town is Pofadder Saverite, a franchise of Massmart. The store now stocked saffron, a spice used in Spanish cooking, Chantel van Jaarsveld, the store’s manager, said.

“You feel like a foreigner in your own town,” Van Jaarsveld said. “We are thankful for that.” – Bloomberg

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