This solar power farm near Hazelmere Dam became operational yesterday when President Jacob Zuma switched on the facility. The project is part of the governments effort to use more renewable energy sources.

President Jacob Zuma switched Durban on to the power of the sun on Sunday afternoon as a prelude to harvesting a much larger slice of SA’s energy needs from “green” electricity.

Though the city’s new 500kW solar power farm near Hazelmere Dam will only produce a modest slice of Durban’s electrical needs, the government is expected to an- nounce a much larger package of renewable energy projects later this week.

Government sources said Energy Minister Dipuo Peters was expected to announce the names of the successful bidding companies for up to 3 750 megawatts of renewable energy projects using the sun, wind, biomass (plant fuel) and small-scale hydro power.

In theory, this is equivalent to about 9 percent of Eskom’s current capacity, but because the sun does not shine at night and wind speeds vary, it is likely that this volume of green electricity will be closer to about 5 percent of current capacity.

This would also be significantly less when measured against Eskom’s plan to double its current generation capacity to 80 000MW before 2030.

Nevertheless, Global Wind Energy Council head Steve Sawyer said last week that the wind energy industry had been “knocking on the door” of the SA government for almost 15 years, and he was optimistic that a key announcement would be made within the next few days at the COP17 climate summit in Durban.

Speaking in Durban on Sunday, Zuma said the solar power farm at Hazelmere Dam would help to offset carbon emissions from COP17 delegates and was one of the first steps in moving towards a green economy.

The R25-million solar farm, which will generate enough electricity to power about 300 suburban homes, uses concentrating photovoltaic technology, which is more efficient than the standard photovoltaic panels used for rooftop solar water heating. Supplied by the French group Soitec, the 32 solar units tilt horizontally and vertically to track the sun’s movement, so as to capture as much solar power as possible.

The farm took just four weeks to build and takes up about one hectare of land.

Soitec president Andre Auberton-Herve said that, unlike coal-fired plants, solar farms did not need large volumes of water for cooling and it was also possible to grow vegetables and retain grazing pastures beneath the solar trackers.

Soitec was about to open a new manufacturing plant in California and he said the company was ready to replicate similar plants in SA.

He also expressed interest in plans to develop a 5 000MW solar park near Upington in the Northern Cape.

Environment Minister Edna Molewa said the country stood at the “dawn of a new era which will see us revolutionise the manner in which we generate the energy to power our nation’s industry and homes”.

SA currently generates 90 percent of its electricity by burning coal.

The government recently approved a 20-year energy policy plan, which aims to provide up to 42 percent of all new electricity from renewable energy, 23 percent from nuclear, 15 percent from coal and the remainder from gas and imported hydro power.

However, because these percentages refer to new electricity only, the bulk of total supplies would still be based mainly on coal, with a massive increase in nuclear energy generation.