SUN POWER: Kalkbult solar PV power station in the Northern Cape will feed electricity into Eskom's grid. Picture: SCARTEC SOLAR

Cape Town - When South Africans switch on their lights on Tuesday night (November 12), a small portion of their electricity will be powered by the sun for the first time.

Electricity from the country’s first solar power plant, the 75 megawatt Kalkbult solar PV power station, flows into the national grid on Tuesday, making it the first solar plant to come online.

Kalkbult, in the Northern Cape about halfway between De Aar and Hopetown, will generate 155 million kilowatt hours a year, equivalent to the annual electricity consumption of 33 000 households.

The solar plant is one of scores of private renewable energy plants the government has authorised to provide green electricity for the next 20 years, part of the Department of Energy’s renewable energy independent power producer programme. The programme contributes to South Africa’s commitment to combat climate change by reducing our high carbon footprint, primarily from our reliance on coal to generate electricity.

Investment by the private sector in the solar, wind, mini-hydro and biogas projects in the programme is estimated at R100-billion.

The Kalkbult solar plant was built by the Norwegian-based company Scatec Solar with local partners. It connects to the Eskom grid on Tuesday, three months ahead of schedule.

The solar plant is built on land leased from a sheep farmer, who will continue to farm alongside the power plant. The plant is made up of 312 000 solar panels mounted on 156km of substructure linked to inverters, transformers and a high voltage substation. It covers 105 hectares of land.

Scatec Solar chief executive Raymond Carlsen said the company had “worked day and night” to get the project completed. “Local people who worked on the project were quick to learn, despite the fact that many did not have previous experience in this kind of work,” he said.

During peak construction, more than 600 employees, mainly from the local community, worked on the site. Around 16 percent were women, who worked at all levels from management to construction.

As required by the government from all independent power producers, part of the revenue from the solar power station and a portion of the dividends will go to paying for social and economic development initiatives among residents living within a 50km radius. The company said at the end of the 20-year contract with the government, it could upgrade the project with the latest technology, or it could dismantle it.

The programme to buy renewable power from private companies, which build the plants at their own cost, has drawn a big response from the private sector. The last round of bids selected last month drew 93 bids, but only 17 contracts were awarded.

The Department of Energy has said because of the high number of very competitive bids for wind and solar PV, it was considering selecting more companies. It would make this decision before November 20. - Cape Times