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Removal of Power Constraints Crucial for Post COVID-19 Recovery

This article originally appeared in the Daily Maverick Opinion Section.

It is difficult to understand why the main limitations to private power generation have not been removed, despite repeated pledges from government to that effect. There is a real danger that while grappling with the immediate crisis, policymakers will shelve the issue indefinitely.

Demand for electricity has plunged with the onset of South Africa’s COVID-19 lockdown, removing the threat of load shedding for its three-week duration. It could be several months before the economy is up and running normally again, but it would be a big mistake to forget the power constraints which plagued SA in the weeks before the pandemic struck.

When Moody’s downgraded SA on 27 March, it pointed out that unreliable electricity supply and its impact on the economy was one of the main reasons for the decision. The ratings agency also pointed out that a strategy to stabilise electricity production in the country has failed to materialise and that as a result, economic growth would remain low for years. Returning to a constrained electricity supply without an adequate government response is the last thing embattled businesses need after COVID-19. 

Against this background, it is difficult to understand why the main limitations to private power generation have not been removed, despite repeated pledges from government to that effect. There is a real danger that while grappling with the immediate crisis, policymakers will shelve the issue indefinitely. In addition, the National Energy Regulator (NERSA) has inexplicably halted all new licensing applications for the duration of the lockdown period. 

For connected projects larger than 1MW — which applies to most of the pent-up demand for corporate generation of electricity — a license is still required from NERSA even if the installation is for a customer’s own use, or established through a bilateral agreement involving only a customer and an independent power producer.

These onerous license application processes were intended for large, utility style power stations, hundreds of MWs in size, and each requires a public participation process with hearings. They have requirements which make the development of smaller project impractical. The official time for NERSA to issue these licenses is 120 days but in practice it takes far longer — with some cases so far taking as long as two years.

NERSA is theoretically able to process license applications, but in practice is inadequately resourced to handle the quantity of smaller applications that are now being made. This regulatory blockage is holding up the roll out of hundreds of MWs of electricity generation, which would be the fastest way to alleviate the power constraints which lead to load shedding. 

This point has been repeatedly made by independent bodies like the Minerals Council of SA, Business Unity SA, the South African Photovoltaic Industry Association, and the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research. It has been recognised by Minerals and Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe, who indicated at the mining Indaba in March 2020 that self-generation of any size would not require licensing. 

Companies in the private sector were hopeful that their pleas for the 1MW cap on licensing for their own electricity generation would be lifted to 10MW, which would include most of the projects they want to implement. And yet, when the eagerly awaited Schedule 2 of the Electricity Regulation Act was published on 26 March, the 1MW threshold for grid-connected facilities exempt from licensing was maintained. 

The shape of the national load profile – when and how much electricity is used – is important to Government because it affects which mix of electricity is most cost effective. Its preferable to have a load profile that allows for the maximum usage of the cheapest resources available to the country. From this angle, the control over who builds what generation is understandable, but even with this argument considered, the amount of solar power in South Africa still represents under 5% of installed capacity, and less than 2% of the consumed energy.

A 10MW solar generator represents 0.006% of annual electricity demand and 150 of such projects would need to be installed to reach 1% of the total demand. Lifting the license exemption threshold to 10MW will initially have negligible effect on the demand profile but a huge effect on lifting red tape in the way of more energy coming onstream and supporting small to medium size businesses. It is always possible for the state to monitor the uptake and lower the threshold for licences at a later stage if necessary.

As the chairperson of a solar PV company, the SOLA Group, I have seen many clients desperate to install larger solar plants than the 1 MVA limit to alleviate their electricity constraints and lower their costs. These projects are practically ready to be rolled out – and could be built within 8-12 months – if the licensing hurdle is removed. 

From my extensive experience in the solar PV industry in South Africa I estimate that, without such restrictions, solar PV companies could build 500 MWs within the next 12 – 18 months. The wasted opportunity due to these arbitrary licence requirements is obvious and destructive.

For the sake of saving businesses and creating jobs post COVID-19, I urge government to:

  • Lift the threshold on requirement for a generation license from 1MW to 10MW until the embedded generation allocation in SA’s new Integrated Resource Plan has been reached.
  • Require that these projects are registered with NERSA upon their commercial operation date through submission of an independent certificate of compliance against which the allocation to embedded generation can be measured, and keep the database of installed MWs public and updated.
  • Ensure that NERSA is provided with, or creates, clear guidelines as to the technical standards that must be met to obtain a generation license for generation projects above 10MW in size.
  • Provide NERSA with the resources, both through budget and staff, to evaluate the applications in a meaningful, prompt and scientific way.
  • Return to processing and receiving licence applications during the lockdown.

The business case for installing embedded power generation remains for the private sector, and the economy will once again start moving when the impact of the pandemic subsides. It would be tragic if its potential to recover is thwarted by continued electricity shortages. 

Solar Power Systems - Alrode Brewery in Alberton - industrial solar power system

AB InBev bolster breweries with 8.7 MW renewable energy from SOLA

Renewable energy solutions are a quick and efficient way for South Africa to reduce energy demand on Eskom’s constrained grid, and solutions are being supported by businesses who see the value of embedded electricity solutions for their supply chains. 

This is according to Chris Haw, Chairperson of the SOLA Group, who in 2018 signed seven multi-tiered Power Purchase Agreements (PPA) with AB InBev Africa that are seeing large solar power plants built across seven major breweries in South Africa.

The Power Purchase Agreements will total around 8.7 MW DC capacity. Of this, 2.6 MW have already reached practical completion with the remaining projects in advanced stages of construction.

“Not only is solar a viable and cost-effective option for us, it aligns to our global sustainability strategy, which entails going 100% renewable by 2025,” says Taryn Rosekilly, Vice President of Procurement and Sustainability at SAB and AB InBev Africa.

ABin Bev Breweries will now be powered with solar energy

The bold step taken by AB InBev Africa highlights the private sector’s strong drive towards reducing carbon emissions and procuring renewable energy solutions.

Gugulethu Nogaya, the Renewable Energy Procurement Manager at AB InBev Africa explains that “procuring renewable energy is part of our sustainability objectives set at a global level. Our global renewable energy commitment is to ensure that 50% of our purchased electricity will come from renewable energy sources by 2020, and 100% by 2025”. 

Nogaya points out that the company has achieved its 50 % target ahead of schedule. “We are currently on track to achieve our 100 % target, with the PPA being an instrumental first step in ensuring our African business is on track to achieve the 2025 ambition.”  

Nogaya adds that “in order to meet the AB InBev 100 % target in South Africa, it will require solar renewable energy facilities to the total of 191 MW.” 

Jonathan Skeen, Gauteng MD and Gugulethu Nogaya, Renewable Energy Procurement Manager, at the launch of AB InBev's renewable electricity and electric truck launch

According to the International Energy Agency, distributed solar PV systems in homes and Commercial and Industrial buildings have almost tripled since 2014. It predicts that distributed energy will grow as much as onshore wind by 2024, making up half of all new solar PV capacity. 

This is likely due to the flexibility and affordability of PV plants compared to other forms of energy generation. The rollout of large-scale solar PV systems takes much less time than other generation technologies. 

There is also a greater demand and expectation that businesses take more responsibility for the way in which they operate. Providing renewable energy allows businesses to meet their sustainability targets whilst taking pressure off of Eskom’s load.

The PPA between AB InBev Africa and the SOLA Group is allowing solar PV to be rolled out without AB InBev incurring capital costs. Instead, the company will purchase its power requirement directly from SOLA, with the remainder coming from Eskom and local municipalities. 

In 2019, SOLA secured R400 M with partners from African Infrastructure Investment Managers (AIIM) and Nedbank in order to fund projects such as the AB InBev Africa solar facilities.

“Embedded electricity generation – particularly solar PV – can quickly address Eskom’s supply shortfall,” states Haw. “For large Commercial and Industrial companies, procuring renewable power enables saving costs whilst also reducing their carbon footprints.” 

The solar PV plants for AB InBev Africa span across seven different sites in various areas of the country, including the Western Cape, Limpopo, Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape. 

“Combined, the plants will consist of over 23 000 solar panels. The construction of the projects will create 175 jobs, in addition to SOLA’s 56 permanent positions,” points out Haw. 

AB InBev Africa is one of the largest industrial business in South Africa, making the conversion of their sites to solar significant. “The PV systems will produce close to 14 GWh of electricity per year – the equivalent of taking over 2000 cars off the roads. This is exactly the type of clean energy procurement that we need to see more companies committing to,” concludes Haw. 

SOLA starts 2020 by reaching 100 GWh target

SOLA has officially met its goal to generate over 100 000 000 kWh of clean energy by 2020 –  with a day to spare. 

The group set the target to reach 100 GWh of clean energy by 2020 as a goal when its C&I division started in 2014. And with just one day to spare, the target was met on 30 December 2019. 

100 000 000 kWh of clean energy in South Africa, where the carbon factor is quite high because of a coal-based electricity system, equates to saving around 92 590 tons of carbon emissions equivalents (CO2eq). This amount of CO2eq can be likened to taking 20 000 cars off the roads for a year, or avoiding 400 million litres of petrol, or powering 11 000 middle-class houses for a year, or planting 1.5 million trees, 10 years ago.

With wildfires currently raging across Australia, people dying of pollution-related causes in Mpumalanga, and our own Eskom struggling to keep the lights on, it is important to unpack the significance of this goal: we need to bolster the production of clean energy globally. And whilst 100 GWh is just a fraction of South Africa’s overall energy production, it is an important start in painting a better future for the country, and perhaps even the continent. 

Solar and wind energy could set South Africa on track for the world’s cheapest electricity

This article originally appeared in the Daily Maverick Opinion Section.

It’s a no-brainer — a move to renewable energy will not only boost the economy and create jobs, it is also the path to providing South Africa with potentially the cheapest electricity in the world given our natural wind and solar resources.

Energy was never this difficult. Energy came from coal in the ground, burnt somewhere, put in a turbine, wires were connected, and cheap energy flowed for many years. However, this was never going to last long, because the amount of coal that forms in a year was being burnt in a minute. The world has now realised that this is unsustainable behaviour, and we’re faced with a set of future alternatives: hydro, nuclear, wind, solar, biomass, coal — each with a sidecar of complexity, and we need to make some decisions.

Ten years ago, the general public didn’t know what a kilowatt-hour (kWh) was, what it cost, where it came from; they didn’t know how many litres of water were spent in a flush or shower, how many dams we had or how many megalitres we use per day.

That’s changed. We’re more knowledgeable now. Why? Because we’ve felt the effects. Electricity is expensive and we’ve even run out of it (many times). We’ve been on water restrictions for years, and Cape Town came close to being the first major city in the world to run out. Authorities are having to find alternative methods to abstract water, domestically and regionally. Unemployment is a major contributor to poverty and addiction, and we witness frequent protests against injustice.

Knowledge, however, can help us to solve problems. If the problem at hand is to solve the electricity crisis, we need deep understanding to find the least cost kWh and invest in the technologies that will deliver that. The “least cost” does not only refer to the financial cost, but also the environmental and social cost. The industry has been poor at recognising the entrenchment of communities reliant on the electricity sector and ensuring that reform is done fairly.

In the long wait for the IRP 2019 to be gazetted, many people have missed a recent study published in the international journal, ScienceDirect, which took a bold step forward in modelling a best electricity policy scenario based on cost, water and employment. The strength of this peer-reviewed article is that it is founded on solid scientific data. And while a cold approach to kWhs might not reflect every sensitivity in our country, the study did pay attention to the largest social item on our agenda: jobs.

The paper, titled Pathway towards achieving 100% renewable electricity by 2050 for South Africa, modelled the costs of renewable and non-renewable electricity generation pathways in South Africa, taking into consideration South Africa’s current energy requirements, the expected population growth, and costs of electricity. The paper highlighted the possible scenarios for South Africa’s electricity future — whether we stay on the Current Policy Scenario, highly reliant on coal — or go aggressively into renewable energy (what the authors term the “Best Policy Scenario”).

Their suggested “Best Policy Scenario” (BPS) includes 71% of overall electricity production coming from solar PV and 22% by wind by 2050. In addition to this, storage technologies, transmission grids and gas power plants would be utilised to provide the elements of consistency for a stable electricity supply.

The BPS is 25% cheaper than the current policy scenario, and this doesn’t take into account the additional benefits of electricity being virtually 100% renewable, such as the reduction in the detrimental effects of carbon and other poisonous gases in Earth’s atmosphere, the distributed nature of the employment, and the lower risk in the technologies.

If you put a cost saving to these benefits, particularly the greenhouse gas emissions, then the 100% renewables case becomes more than 50% cheaper than the Current Policy Scenario.

In addition, the cost reductions in Levelised Cost of Electricity (LCOE) are not the only benefit of this pathway. In addition to their findings on LCOE, the authors assert that the low-carbon pathway will also decrease water consumption by 87% by 2030, and by 99% by 2050, compared to the baseline — which would remain in the Current Policy Scenario.

From an employment perspective, the renewables-rich BPS will grow the jobs created by the energy sector dramatically, almost doubling to 408,000 by 2035 and tapering off to 278,000 by 2050 as construction jobs stabilise. In the Current Policy Scenario, fewer jobs are created, never rising higher than the 200,000 mark, and decreasing to 184,000 jobs in 2050.

What about coal and nuclear?

The arguments to retain a coal-heavy electricity supply are becoming thinner, particularly given the overwhelming evidence toward coal’s contribution to greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change and the fact that South Africa is one of the world’s worst emitters of CO2, clocking in just behind huge economies like China and the US.

The authors assert that coal and nuclear should be phased out in the BPS, adding that new investments in coal and nuclear could be at risk of becoming stranded assets as more banks tend to opt out of investing in non-renewable technologies.

On nuclear energy, the authors assert that, “results for the fully renewable end-point scenarios indicate that there is no need for high cost and high-risk nuclear energy in the future South African electricity mix”.

From the study, it is clear that South Africa has an important policy decision to make: one that will steer its future toward low-cost, low-carbon electricity that will create jobs and reduce freshwater consumption. It is an option that would be to the benefit of all South Africans — and the world at large.

The “side” benefit is that in this scenario, due to our significant wind and solar resources, we’d probably have the cheapest electricity in the world, adding a strong element of competitiveness to our economy, which we’re also trying to grow. Now more than ever, we need to do the right thing. It’s clear as day.

Aries utility solar PPA in South Africa

Electricity in SA seems bleak, but it’s loaded with opportunity.

Originally published on LinkedIn

What the Eskom’s current state of nation-wide load shedding and their 15% tariff increase appeals are teaching us, it is that the fate of South African industry is tied fundamentally to the availability of stable and affordable electricity supply. The sustainability of the utility requires brave, informed and decisive leadership: but it is possible.

We’re in a landmark year that will determine not only the fate of Eskom, but South Africa more broadly. In May, the country will vote on whether to extend the term of the ruling party in a an uncertain global market.  The ANC’s latest manifesto has clear intentions around energy: more renewables, more private partnerships (IPPs), repositioning Eskom and ensuring fair treatment of South Africans as part of a Just energy transition. It also plans to integrate solar PV in state buildings and new developments.

This year, we’re looking at a year of continued change in a sector that badly needs a modern restructure.

Arriving at today’s energy market

In South Africa, 2018 held much in the way of energy sector developments. The renewables-vs-nuclear stalemate came to an end with new energy minister Jeff Radebe signing 27 long overdue renewables projects. Eskom’s mismanagement was placed under the spotlight and a new CEO, Phakamani Hadebe, was appointed in May. In August, the much-awaited draft Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) was released, showing favour toward renewables and gas and less coal and nuclear. Why the sudden change in South Africa’s energy landscape after years of stagnation?

One answer is that South Africa has started to take heed of global trends toward renewable energy. This is not simply a fad: the upsurge in solar PV technology, in particular, is part of a global market context. According to the Global Market Outlook report for solar energy, solar PV accounted for nearly 40% of all new generation technology during 2017: more than any other power generation technology. This was mostly driven by China, US and Japan, whose overall manufacturing influence also drove the costs of solar modules to record lows. It is undisputable that Solar PV’s cost per unit is now cheapest in the world by a significant margin.  Even more growth is expected in coming years.

The challenges for the energy landscape

Back in South Africa, Eskom has a major debt-service problem on its existing assets. The assets aren’t able to cover their own costs at Eskom’s current tariff rate, which is why they are asking for 45% increase over the next 3 years when inflation is just 5% p.a. Put another way, these assets are worth less than the R420Bn of debt that Eskom borrowed when building them in the first place.This is the primary cause of  Eskom’s death spiral.

The challenge for Eskom, and South Africa, remains that a different electricity path is cheaper. The cold numbers show that the lowest cost model is renewable energy and gas, with no new nuclear builds and limited further coal. This has brought up some valid social issues around transformation and the displacement of employment. These issues are important and need to be tackled head on, they also need to be seen in the light of education, upskilling, entrepreneurship and opportunity.

The opportunities for the energy landscape

The energy minister has recently said that the IRP will be signed off in mid-February.  The IRP draft, combined with the ANC’s policy manifesto, does show willingness to dissolve the electricity monopoly, bring private players into the market, reduce the costs of electricity and stimulate the economy, allowing the government to focus on the key areas of the country that need it most.

The President’s recent announcement of his intent to divide Eskom into separate Generation, Transmission and Distribution entities is not only in line with global trends, but it will also ringfence Eskom’s unprofitable generation assets from affecting its profitable grid infrastructure, which is crucial to our country’s stability as an economic entity.  It is hard to know the series of actions that will follow, but we can be sure that it will be done sensitively in an election year.

We’re already seeing large users of electricity investing in their own power consumption, and when the IRP is released, we’ll see generation licenses starting to be awarded to private embedded generators.  Most of this is, and will be in future, solar PV due to the ease of implementation and abundance of solar resource in South Africa. However, there will also be some cogeneration and biowaste projects too.  These steps are very positive, as they set the stage of a socialised electricity grid with multiple power sources, allowing the most affordable energy to be available to South African industry and encouraging economic growth.

The Future is Bright

We have an extraordinary opportunity for electricity reform in South Africa.  If our renewable resources are harnessed, we not only have 20 years of upskilling and job creation, but with our natural resources we could have, sustainably, the cheapest electricity in the world. If we get the structure right, and manage the transition in the best interests of all of our people, it will be a positive boon for South Africa’s economy. This is a major task, but if achieved, we have a lot to look forward to.

SOLA and project 90 by 2030 worked together on solar PV mentorship programme with Khayelitsha youth

Salt River Secondary receives a solar system, thanks to Project 90 and SOLA

On 7 December, SOLA Future Energy was privileged to build a solar PV system for Salt River Secondary School in Cape Town. This was a culmination of SOLA’s involvement in the “Playing with Solar” project organised by Project 90 by 2030.

The 3.96kWp solar system will save the school around R 8 200.00 on its annual electricity bill. It will also help the school cut back 5 tons on its yearly carbon emissions. The school was awarded a Wessa Eco-Schools flag in 2017.

SOLA installs PV system at Salt River Secondary School

The project and donation came after two months of collaboration between organisation SOLA Future Energy and the YouLead Warriors – youth taking part in Project 90’s climate-focused youth leadership initiative.

The YouLead Warriors were given practical training on the mechanics and benefits of solar power at workshops held earlier in the year. This consisted of two 4-hour workshops at SOLA’s offices, detailing the basics of solar system design and media strategy and communications. The youth also visited two of SOLA’s sites – the iconic Robben Islalnd Microgrid, and Kenilworth Centre’s solar system.

Project 90 site visit Kenilworth Centre

Project 90 site visit to Robben Island

Dom Wills, CEO of SOLA Future Energy, says that it was a privilege to work with these future leaders. “Through this project, we have been able to teach learners that providing a reliable, cheap and clean form of energy is something that can benefit communities and create jobs.”

The ‘Playing with Solar’ initiative was made possible by generous funding from the HCI Foundation.  The installation was made possible through donations from Ingeteam and Lumax Energy, who sponsored the solar inverter and mounting gear respectively.

Acting school principal, Fairuz Patel, thanked everyone who worked on the project, saying that the money they are saving “can make a massive difference in the kind of education we can offer our learners, while also making a real and tangible difference to the environment”.

SOLA’s Robben Island Project wins SANEA Project of the Year Award

SOLA Future Energy has won SANEA’s Energy Project of the Year Award. The award, which recognises an energy project that has brought significant recognition internationally to South Africa’s energy environment, was given to SOLA for their design and build of Robben Island’s Microgrid – a project funded by the Department of Tourism.

The award was given based on the project meeting a stringent set of criteria, including:

  • Leadership
  • Innovation
  • Initiative
  • Role model
  • Visionary qualities
  • International recognition
  • Contribution has had impact in South Africa

The Microgrid has assisted Robben Island, historically a grim landmark of isolation and oppression, to evolve into a space for critical dialogue, remembrance, education, tourism and conservation.

The installation of a state-of-the-art microgrid on Robben Island is the largest combined solar and lithium-ion storage facility in South Africa. The Department of Tourism had set aside funding for a microgrid project with solar photovoltaic systems (PV) to improve both the island’s image and function. SOLA Future Energy was awarded the contract to design and install a PV farm comprising nearly two thousand high-efficiency modules that would generate in excess of 666 kWp.

The Robben Island Solar project is a prime example of a technologically innovative and sustainable initiative.

Since adopting a green energy system, the island has already produced 650 000 kWh of solar energy – an average of 3250 kwh per day – which has significantly reduced its reliance on traditional diesel generators, a noisy and expensive feature of the old system.

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. From a financial perspective, the solar plant is estimated to save the island over R6 000 000 in energy costs each year. The initial cost of installing the solar plant is likely to be paid off within four years. The snowball effect of the reduced spend on fuel is, at this stage, difficult to quantify. However, the savings could be used to upgrade existing infrastructure and create jobs on the island.

Over and above the financial considerations, the noise and dust emanating from these generators were not creating a tourist-friendly environment. In terms of carbon emissions, the solar farm is expected to reduce the CO2 emissions of the island by 860 Tons per annum.

Mmekutmfon Essien, Senior Project Manager at SOLA Future Energy, receives award from the Chairperson of SANEA

Mmekutmfon Essien, Senior Project Manager at SOLA Future Energy, receives award from the Chairperson of SANEA

Robben Island battery bank

Robben Island’s 666.4 kW solar PV and battery storage microgrid

Last week, the Minister of Tourism opened the Robben Island solar PV microgrid, designed and constructed by SOLA Future Energy. This system, incorporating one of the southern Hemisphere’s largest battery banks, is made of 1960 mono crystalline solar modules, ready to produce 666.4 kW of power and 2420 lithium-ion battery cells, able to store 837 kWh worth of electricity and supply 500 kW worth of peak power.

Designing a smart grid

SOLA Future Energy designed Robben Island’s Microgrid over the course of two months. Designing the PV plant incorporated several phases, including the replacement of a mini-substation to adequately incorporate PV into Robben Island’s existing grid, designing of the ground-mounted solar farm and placement, the battery bank and controls.

Phase 1 – Understanding the island’s energy requirements and solar resource

Robben Island Tourism - Robben Island Solar PV System

Robben Island attracts thousands of tourists each day

The first phase of the designing a solar PV microgrid was to understand the energy requirements of the island – and what solar resource is available. With thousands of tourists visiting Robben Island each day, as well as 100 staff living permanently on the island, a lighthouse and a desalination plant, the island’s energy requirements are quite significant. Understanding these requirements was the first phase to knowing what type and size of system to design.

Typically, when designing rooftop solar systems, it is important to consider shading from other buildings or large trees, but with Robben Island’s placement and shrubby vegetation, the solar resource is excellent and relatively undisturbed. In addition, the ability to place the modules at a fixed-tilt axis in a north facing area, made them ideal for solar penetration, right into the late afternoon.

Phase 2 – Understanding the existing grid and how to incorporate into it

robben island solar power supply

Robben Island power supply was traditionally provided by diesel generators. Last week, the Island officially announced it’s conversion to solar energy

Solar PV usually powers a building directly by turning its Direct Current electricity (DC) into Alternating Current electricity (AC), through solar inverters. This power is usually supplied in 400kV size, which is the power that typically supplies plug-points and electric outlets in buildings. However, incorporating into an energy grid requires a different kind of connection.

Robben Island’s energy grid runs off of a historically-erected 11kV line. In order to incorporate the PV system into the island’s grid (as opposed to, for example, a single building), a mini-substation needed to be designed and built in order to convert the PV plant’s supply of 400 kV to the grid’s 11kV. This substation replaced one of the island’s existing, but too small, substations. Once erected, it allowed the PV farm to feed into the island’s grid.

Phase 3 – Modelling and simulating the PV and battery resource

Microgrid performance on Robben Island Solar Microgrid

Data insight helps to monitor the microgrid’s performance

Once the solar farm was designed, based on the energy needs of the island, the design needed to incorporate the battery system to store excess solar power, taking into account the scope of the project. The battery bank is made up of 2420 lithium-ion battery cells. Like cell phone or laptop batteries, lithium-ion batteries have a long life and have a higher threshold to discharge and charge with larger power. Unlike their lead acid counterparts, lithium-ion batteries can use up to 96% of their capacity, making them a highly efficient choice to support the longevity of the solar PV farm, which will last over 25 years.

A large part of designing the battery system to incorporate fully with PV is the programming of the actual microgrid. The programming consists of scheduling the generators to switch off when the batteries reach 30% State of Charge (SOC). When the batteries reach 15% SOC, the generators are scheduled to switch on, making sure that there is a continuous source of power on the island. The wireless system between the three different components allows the batteries to “talk” to the PV. This decision-making ability, and intelligent control in each device, makes the microgrid a smart grid that ensures seamless power to the island.

Helping not only the efficiency, but the quality, of energy supply

Diesel generators on Robben Island Solar System

Diesel generators to provide energy when battery bank is depleted

One of the unexpected outcomes for Robben Island is a better quality energy supply for the island’s operations. Previously, the quality of supply had peaks and troughs, meaning that equipment could be affected by unbalanced supply. However, the new battery inverters are able to stabilise the grid, making the power better quality overall, and in turn affect equipment and machinery less.

Although the microgrid contains diesel generators, the Robben Island microgrid is unique because it does not rely on the diesel generators to function. Usually, solar PV works by attaching to an existing grid – or diesel generators. However, with a special inverter, the microgrid contains a virtual generator machine (VGM), which allows the PV to run without any generators at all.

Robben Island Solar Energy Microgrid Infographic

In conclusion

SOLA Future Energy has carried out the design and construction over the last year and a half on Robben Island. Although the design of the system took about two months of non-stop design time, there were several other considerations in working on the World Heritage Site. The video of the Robben Island Solar Project tells the story of the island’s symbolic transformation and its relevance as a microcosm of South Africa. The future of Africa is powered by the sun, and we’re there to make it happen.

Robben Island Tourism

Video clip shows the transformation of Robben Island into a beacon of hope

When SOLA found out that they had won the contract to build a solar PV microgrid on Robben Island, commissioned by the National Department of Tourism, they were determined to spread the story of the project far and wide. With the help of video-experts Lima Bean, they created a short film that tells the story of Robben Island’s transformation.

A perfect set for a transformation story

Robben Island is known for many things, but particularly for being world heritage site on the tip of South Africa, and “a symbol of the triumph of the human spirit over adversity”. It is also known for its beautiful, stark scenery and ecological diversity. Yet the island still requires energy – the ongoing tourism, desalination plant, and local community use 2 million kWh per year. This power was historically supplied only by diesel generators, but since July 2017, is being supplied by the sun. It is the perfect setting for a story of transformation and hope.

Robben Island solar PV microgrid

Robben Island solar PV microgrid

A symbolic transformation

“We wanted to show that Robben Island is a great example of how a difficult historical context does not prevent a brighter future,” said James Bisset, the short film’s director. A key component to the symbolic side of the story was the input from Vusumzi Mcongo, an ex-political prisoner who arrived on Robben Island in 1978. Now 63 years old, Mr Mcongo still lives on Robben Island, and works in the Robben Island Museum, taking tours through the prison. “I have a passion for this place,” he states.

As someone who not only works, but also lives on the island, Mr Mcongo is part of the new energy story: he is part of Robben Island’s transformation from old power to the new, and will benefit from the new system. Robben Island has a difficult history – one of banishment and imprisonment – but, like Mr Mcongo, the future of the island is one of hope rather than pain.

“Telling the story of the Robben Island Microgrid was very important to us,” SOLA CEO Dom Wills stated. “The transformation of Robben Island is symbolic: it shows that there is hope and inspiration for South Africa and potential for innovation in the future. We want South Africa and the region to see that affordable, clean energy is here today.”

Robben Island Tourism

Robben Island attracts thousands of tourists each day

Solar PV and batteries: the future of energy

The Robben Island solar PV microgrid is a story of hope because of the technological innovation at its core. Solar energy uses the sun’s power to create electricity. Traditionally, solar PV works during the day and requires additional power sources at night, when the sun doesn’t shine. However, with the strides in battery technology over the last few years, battery storage has huge potential to change the game and make solar a viable option for going completely off-grid.

The Robben Island solar microgrid is an example of such a game-changer. The generators on the island historically used an expensive and fossil resource, diesel, which was shipped to the island in order to generate the electricity required. The new solar microgrid stores the excess energy created by the sun in the middle of the day in lithium ion batteries, powering the island well into the night. By the time the generators kick in, the consumption of the energy is low, and ultimately Robben Island can significantly reduce its reliance on diesel, even during the winter months.

Robben Island solar PV construction

Construction of the Robben Island solar PV farm

Partnerships make the video possible

Suppliers to the project partnered with SOLA and Lima Bean to make the creation of the video story possible. ABB, the inverter supplier to the project, and Canadian Solar, who supplied the solar modules, were both key partners in enabling the video to take place. “Making a video like this is not cheap, and we were grateful for the support of our partners to make the video possible,” said Dom Wills.

The Robben Island solar microgrid shows the power of solar PV and batteries

It has been almost a year and a half since the Robben Island Solar Microgrid project was awarded to SOLA Future Energy. After a thorough process of designing, planning and implementing, the project has been launched – and is a demonstration of how solar PV, combined with batteries, can make an excellent combination. This blog post describes just why the solar microgrid is so effective, and how the rest of South Africa can follow suit.

A microgrid on a historic monument

Many people know Robben Island for its reputation as the prison that held several high-profile political prisoners such as Walter Sisulu, Ahmed Kathrada and Nelson Mandela. Over the years, the island has also been a leper colony and a host site of WW2 garrisons. The island, therefore, has a rich political history – one which draws the thousands of tourists to its shores daily.

In addition to the historical significance, Robben island is also a biodiversity hotspot, with several bird species finding refuge and breeding grounds on the rocky shore. The African jackass penguin – an endangered bird found only on the southern coast of Africa – also calls the island home.

Robben Island Solar Microgrid protects islands biological diversity - Penguins

Robben Island is a world heritage site with biological diversity

Energy to Robben Island has historically been supplied by diesel generators. To fulfil the energy requirements of the island, around 600 000 litres of diesel were consumed on an annual basis – at great cost to the island’s administration, and at great cost to the sensitive environment on the island.

The solar microgrid was commissioned by the National Department of Tourism in order to promote sustainable tourism at key monuments around South Africa, as part of their Tourism Incentive Programme. The microgrid, consisting of a 666.4 kW solar farm, 837 kW powerstore and multiple controllers, will move the island away from its reliance on diesel generators and toward the sustainable resource of the sun.

The World Heritage status of the island made it a very sensitive area to carry out construction, and environmental and political considerations meant that the site for the PV farm was carefully chosen. SOLA staff had to also be sent for training to handle penguins, snakes and wildlife and how to handle archaeological artifacts that might be discovered underground.

What’s so great about a solar microgrid?

A combination of tourism, desalination plant and local community means that Robben Island uses over 2 Million kWh of electricity annually. The solar microgrid consists of several elements that will produce almost 1Million kWh of electricity annually, significantly reducing costs of buying diesel, ferrying it to the island and burning it for electricity generation.

The solar microgrid uses the most abundant resource on the island – the sun – and converts this energy seamlessly into electricity, which can be used for operations. In combination, the battery system stores any excess energy produced by the sun, for use during the night or on cloudy days. If both the battery system and the sun are low, the smart microgrid controllers trigger the diesel generators to start up, ensuring that the island never experiences energy shortages or blackouts.

Robben Island Replace Diesel Generators With Solar Power PV Microgrid

Robben Island has historically used diesel generators to provide the power needed on the island.

The combination of solar and batteries, a revolutionary step, is the key aspect of the return on investment for the island. The solar microgrid will ensure that the island reduces its fossil fuel consumption dramatically, by nearly 250 000 litres of diesel per annum. This will result in a reduction the Island’s carbon emissions by 820 tons, as well as a significant monetary saving. The system will last over 20 years.

How a smart solar microgrid works

Usually, solar systems are grid-tied – meaning that they supplement power supply and remain connected to the central electricity grid. Some also produce excess power which feeds back into the grid. A microgrid, in contrast, works independent of a centralised electricity grid, yet retains the functionality of it. This means that it contains multiple controllers that switch power sources as and when necessary, without ever interrupting the power supply.

In the Robben Island Microgrid, there are three key power production aspects. The first of these is a solar farm, consisting of 1960 mono-crystalline modules that produces 666.4 kW of power.

Robben Island Solar Microgrid Uses 1960 solar modules

1960 solar modules to provide energy on Robben Island

The second is a battery bank, consisting of 2420 lithium-ion battery cells, ready to store 837 kWh worth of electricity and supply 500 kV worth of peak power.

Robben Island Solar Power PV Microgrid battery bank

2420 lithium-ion batteries store solar energy for use after hours

The third aspect is the diesel generators, which supply power to the island when the solar farm is not producing energy (for example at night), and the battery bank is depleted.

Old Diesel generators on Robben Island Replaced With Solar Power

Diesel generators to provide energy when battery bank is depleted

Combined, these three power production elements, coupled with a set of smart controllers, supply Robben Island power – all of the time.

Microgrid controls a smart approach to energy management

The microgrid control system is based on a distributed intelligence approach which ensures that the grid behaves smartly for seamless power production. Each of the points of power production have a logic controller that controls the power output at each of these points, whilst reporting back to the other controllers. The system monitors the current load by adding the current production of each of the power sources; each of the controllers then adds a safety factor to the current load and always makes sure it has enough power, immediately available, to supply the load and handle sudden increases in load, such as the operation of the 200 kW desalination plant. The only centralised component in the system is a data-collection system, similar to a small SCADA (Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition), which allows for set points to be altered and measured values to be recorded.

The potential of solar and batteries: a Robben Island case study

Solar PV has long been a more cost-effective energy source than the central grid in South Africa, but it’s the combination of solar with batteries that will make the technology truly disruptive, as it has the potential to make the centralised grid redundant. The Robben Island Microgrid is a great case study to explore the true value of solar PV and battery combinations, because it is already independent of the central grid. During its first two months of operation, the island produced 187 000 kWh clean electricity through solar power, resulting in 53 685 litres of diesel being saved, an equivalent of 495 tons CO2 emissions.

Solar PV Microgrid performance on Robben Island

Data insight helps to monitor the microgrid’s performance

The above graph shows Robben Island’s energy demand (blue line), supported by the generator through the evening. Around 6.30 am, the solar system (green line) starts to produce power, and by 9.30 am, the solar system starts to supply the entire island’s energy demand. By 10am, the solar power starts to surpass the island’s demand, and charges the batteries. Once the batteries are full, the solar power curtails to meet the demand of the island. Once the power starts to go down at 6pm, the batteries are activated and start to discharge, finishing their power around 8.30 pm when the generators start up again.

This graph demonstrates that the solar farm can easily meet – and exceed – the needs of the island during hours of light, even in winter. The rate at which the battery bank charges suggests that an even bigger battery bank could be possible – and the island could rely even less on the diesel generators.

The rapidly decreasing price of battery tech

Based on the above graph, it is clear that an even bigger battery bank on Robben Island would further decrease the already substantially reduced spend on diesel and its accompanied environmental degradation. As such, how can projects start to install solar PV and batteries to meet enough demand to go off grid entirely? The future is closer than we think.

In 2016, the costs of a lithium-ion battery cell had come down 73% from 7 years prior. Even during the building of the project over 12 months, the cost of the tech went down significantly. The graph below, published by Bloomberg New Energy Finance, demonstrates the cost reduction of batteries over the last 7 years.

 

 

decreasing costs of lithium-ion batteries with Solar PV Microgrids

Source: Bloomberg New Energy Finance

 Conclusion: how South Africans can learn from Robben Island’s Example

Robben Island has a difficult history – one of banishment and pain – yet today it serves as a heritage site and a reminder to thousands of the triumph of the human spirit over adversity. In a similar vein, Robben Island’s energy history is one marred by reliance on fossil fuels and environmental degradation. The Robben Island solar microgrid shows an inspiring example of the way in which communities can adopt clean, efficient and more affordable energy – to the benefit of the local community and the surrounding environment.

“It’s been inspiring to work on a project like Robben Island,” said SOLA CEO, Dom Wills. “The island is in many ways a microcosm of South Africa, and we hope that its example will inspire other African communities to follow suit. Adopting clean energy is not only possible – it is now affordable. What Robben Island has taught us is that the future of efficient energy is within our reach.”

Robben Island Microgrid Infographic

Do you know of a community who could benefit from solar microgrid technology? Contact us or use our solar calculator to find out if it is viable. The future of Africa is powered by the sun.