Londiwe Buthelezi

A semi-commercial solar photovoltaic (PV) demonstration plant in Stellenbosch, currently producing panels with a capacity of 5 megawatts of solar power a year, has become South Africa’s first step in the local manufacturing of thin film PV technology.

Yesterday local technology development company Photovoltaic Technology Intellectual Property (PTiP) and the Department of Science and Technology opened Africa’s first semi-commercial plant for the production and marketing of thin-film PV panels.

The plant, a demonstration unit until a decision is made to expand it into a full-scale commercial facility, will produce PV panels that have 90 percent local content.

PTiP sources materials such as chemicals, glass, cabling and aluminium frames in South Africa. Only the specialised chemical components are sourced from PTiP’s German partner, Singulus.

PTiP was the first company to convert basic raw materials into a fully integrated solar energy product in South Africa.

The plant unveiled yesterday was the product of a 20-year development in which PTiP, the University of Johannesburg, the Industrial Development Corporation and other government agencies were involved.

“It’s really a start for South Africa to produce its own PV and produce electricity out of it,” Stefan Rinck, Singulus’s chief executive, said.

Although the demonstration plant has capacity of only 5MW, the planned commercial plant will be able to produce 1 million thin-film PV panels a year, with a combined capacity to generate 100MW of electricity.

This would also create about 4 000 jobs.

Although the prospectus for a full commercial plant has been tabled, the decision to build it has not been finalised.

“It’s a strategic decision that the government has to make whether we import the panels in future or produce them locally,” Vivian Alberts, the chief executive of PTiP, said.

He described as ongoing discussions with the government and private investors about the path to full commercialisation of the plant.

The Department of Science and Technology’s director-general, Phil Mjwara, said the government realised that it would perhaps be unwise not to take advantage of “our own technology if it makes economic sense”.

He pointed out that the facility was semi-commercial. “You still have to produce these things to the level where the numbers are telling us that they can convert [solar energy into electricity] at a level of 15 percent to 17 percent efficiency.

“To then commercialise and produce must not only be dependent on government…

“This commercial production should also stand on its own in terms of the market acceptance of the technology and whether there is a market for this,” Mjwara said.

He said that although the government had the first option on the product, it hoped that the technology would also be exported to the rest of the continent and the world.

Alberts said that developing a 100MW a year plant would require an investment of more than R1 billion.

The government has invested R180 million in the project to date.