The Robben Island solar energy facility.
CAPE TOWN - A state-of-the-art  microgrid system, recently installed on Robben Island by solar energy firm SOLA Future Energy has drastically reduced the island's reliance on costly diesel power, according to Dominic Wills, the chief executive of SOLA Future Energy.

Wills announced some of the firm's latest projects at the African Utililty Week which ended at the Cape Town International Convention Centre on Thursday.

He said the solar system was the largest combined solar and lithium-ion storage facility in South Africa. 

Wills said since adopting a green energy system, the island had already produced 650 000 kWh (kilowatt hour) of solar energy, an average of 3 250 kWh a day, which had significantly reduced its reliance on traditional diesel generators, a noisy and expensive feature of the old system.

He said in the past, diesel had to be transported by ship from the mainland, primarily to desalinate the island's water supply.

"The cost of purchasing and transporting the diesel formed a substantial portion of the island's operating budget. Over and above the financial considerations, the noise and dust emanating from these generators were not creating a tourist-friendly environment," said Wills.

He added that the Department of Tourism set aside funding for a micro-grid project with solar photovoltaic systems (PV) to improve both the island's image and function and that SOLA Future Energy was awarded the contract and installed a PV farm comprising nearly two thousand high-efficiency modules that would generate in excess of 666 kWp (kilowatt peak).

Wills said hard-to-reach areas like islands and rural districts tend to be partially-connected to the national grid or suffer from unreliable electricity supply.

"Like Robben Island, these zones are poised to benefit from going totally off-grid," said Wills.

He said another project the firm was involved with in the Western Cape was the Cedar Mill shopping centre in Clanwilliam after being approached by the centre's developers, Noble Property Fund to help with their power supply needs.

"Initially, the developers had applied for a 500 kVA (kilovolt ampere) connection from Eskom to power the facility, but the parastatal was only able to approve half of their demand requirements due to local constraints to the grid. Faced with a major supply shortage, the developers were forced to consider utilising noisy and expensive diesel generators to make up the shortfall," he said.

Wills said the Robben Island project, launched in September, cost in the region of R25 million and generated 30 jobs, while the Cedar Mill shopping centre project, set to be completed by the end of next month cost R16m and has generated 25 jobs.

He said that SOLA offered to integrate a microgrid into their shopping centre consisting of a 851kWp PV system with a 700kWh lithium-ion battery which makes up for the power shortfall.

"Low overall operating costs for businesses could result in a lower price point for goods and services. These examples demonstrate that successful initiatives need reliable access to low-cost electricity."