Energy experts differ in opinion on whether or not solar farms are the future for the energy crisis in South Africa, while the date for completion of the George solar farm nears.
The completion date for the commissioning of the 1MWp solar farm located in the George industrial area has been set for January 2024.
The executive mayor of George, Leon van Wyk, accompanied by the portfolio councillor for electrotechnical services and fleet management Nosicelo Mbete, officially celebrated the start of construction at the 1-hectare open land in April this year.
George municipality communications manager Chantel Edwards said the municipality was investigating various options to get George and its residents freed of at least one stage, that is two hours of load shedding.
“The implementation of this three-pronged operational approach to significantly reduce our reliance on energy supply from Eskom has three focus areas, one being energy efficiency, another own-build programme, and finally the procurement of energy from independent power producers (IPPs). George uses at peak times up to 85MVA per day. This 1MWp PV plant is the first phase of solar PV plants for George that will feed directly into the municipal grid. The solar plants being installed in George will provide their own generation and reduce Eskom energy consumption. This will also serve as large-scale generation to keep future dispatchable battery energy storage systems charged. This will also assist us in achieving our goal of reducing internal electricity costs and increasing sustainability,” she said
Edwards said the renewable energy power that will be generated through this plant will be connected to the grid to reduce the municipal bulk purchases and will only support the immediate George area. The 1MWp PV plant will consist of about 1 728 PV panels and 10 x 110kW inverters at a total cost of R24 843 090.36. The plant is expected to generate in the order of 1 780MWh per year.
Lungile Mashele, an independent energy expert, said interventions were the future in remedying the dire state of energy in South Africa.
“If a municipality has a way of reducing costs, then it is definitely appreciated. If municipalities make an effort to procure IPP and provide electricity, the municipality can receive revenue and still save from buying from Eskom. What George municipality has done is reduce its cost burden, as electricity accounts for 15–30% of a municipality’s budget. They are likely to sell electricity cheaper and the money saved can be used in other municipal services, such as servicing the library,” she said.
Professor Bernard Bladergroen, the deputy director of SAIAMC and head of the energy storage innovation laboratory at UWC, said photovoltaic panels alone will not ensure independence from Eskom, but it will minimise load shedding.
“Despite the considerable upfront capital cost, the levelised cost of electricity generated by photovoltaics in most parts of South Africa (read R/kWh) is less than any fossil fuel-based power station. There is, however, the challenge of balancing demand (the combined need of electricity by the users within the municipality, also known as the ‘load’) and the supply of electricity, which is limited by how much sunshine the PV panels of the solar farm manage to convert into electricity. As long as the supply is greater than the demand, all is well, but if the load is greater than the supply, there will be trouble, parts of the load need to be shed.
“Adding sufficient grid-scale energy storage technology, such as pumped hydro or large battery systems, can solve the electricity balancing challenge. Historically, the cost of battery energy storage systems has been prohibitively high. However, due to continuous technological improvements and production scale advantages over the last 30 years, these battery systems have become more affordable,” he said.
Bladergroen said based on the abundant solar resources in South Africa, the future of affordable and reliable electricity is in the combination of large-scale low-cost solar farms integrated with significant energy storage capacity.
“The story really becomes exciting when these solar farms move their ground-mount solar panels a few metres above the ground. The partially shaded space creates a microclimate offering great benefits to many agricultural activities. The so-called ‘agri-PV’ structures have already been demonstrated in Europe and the USA and show improved crop yields with a simultaneous reduction of irrigation needs. In South Africa, the practice of agri-PV is expected to be significantly more impactful as both the intensity of the sun and the scarcity of water are far greater than in the countries that have demonstrated successful agri-PV systems.
“Agri PV for South Africa is the key enabler for a cost-effective solution to the energy crisis. It will protect agricultural systems from climate change-induced extreme weather events (preserving national food security), it will allow SA farmers to decarbonise their activities as they will produce far more electricity than needed to process crops, charge e-tractors, run irrigation pumps and cooling systems. Farmers moving into agri-PV will provide the nation with: a) food despite climate change challenges, b) low-cost electricity, c) drastically improved export opportunities of carbon credit-bearing agri products, and d) hundreds of thousands of jobs.
“Meanwhile, the government can assist with the construction of grid-scale energy storage facilities and act against the elements that destroy or steal infrastructure so that everybody can benefit, and let the sun do its magic,” he said.