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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.


SOLA obtains ISO 9001:2015

SOLA Future Energy obtains ISO 9001:2015 Quality Certification

SOLA Future Energy has obtained its ISO 9001:2015 Quality Management Systems certification. The certification, maintained by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), is an internationally-recognised metric to validate the quality of a company’s management systems. Having the certification shows SOLA’s commitment to offering a world-class level of service for designing, constructing and maintaining PV systems.

SOLA Future Energy is a company that believes in powering Africa’s prosperity through clean, affordable energy. Since its establishment, the company has constructed over 12.5 MW of solar systems, mainly on commercial and industrial buildings, retail centres and microgrids. The ISO 9001:2015 certification was awarded once a process of internal and external auditing of SOLA’s ability to design, construct and maintain solar PV systems was completed.

“Certification for the standard was a lengthy process that involved the participation of the whole company,” said Dom Wills, CEO of SOLA Future Energy. In May 2016, SOLA began implementing the quality management system, in line with the latest ISO9001:2015 standard. “Over a period of 6 months, the quality team worked with SOLA staff members and management to intricately understand the processes and management structures used to deliver on solar projects. Each process was formally documented and a baseline for improvements was established,” Wills added.

The Quality Standard, which formally documents processes, as well as roles and responsibilities and applicable metrics, also involves SOLA suppliers. “Our management-approved suppliers list forms part of our Quality Certification, and it ensures our control over the quality of goods and services received by clients,” said Wills.

SOLA Future Energy recently signed an agreement with Atterbury Property Developments to provide PV for their portfolio of properties, and has also opened a Johannesburg branch to service clients across Africa. “The company is growing from strength to strength, and our ISO 9001 certification is part of that,” Wills stated.

The ISO9001:2015 certificate is valid for 3 years and the company will undergo yearly audits by the certification body, TÜV Rheinland.

SOLA ISO 9001:2015 certification

SOLA and Atterbury Property Developments partnership to see 20 MW solar capacity built

SOLA Future Energy and Atterbury partnership to see 20 MW solar capacity built over next few years

SOLA Future Energy and Atterbury Property Developments have partnered to provide high quality solar energy and electrical storage solutions to the Atterbury portfolio of properties. The parties entered an agreement in May 2017, which will guide the installation of 20MW of solar PV systems on properties which Atterbury have developed.

James Ehlers, Managing Director of the Atterbury Property Developments, stated, “We as Atterbury realised that we needed solar-smart solutions, as this will become a vital part of property industry going forward.  We have taken a decision to partner with specialists in the industry. After extensive consultation with role players in the industry, SOLA were our partners of choice and we look forward to working with a leader in the field of solar technology.”

With over 12.5 MW of solar capacity under operation across several large rooftop PV systems, SOLA Future Energy is well positioned to carry out the work for Atterbury. SOLA will provide the design and engineering services for the full 20MW, ensuring that the solar solutions to all of these developments are optimised. They will also manage the installation during the project development phase, and will assist Atterbury with the ongoing operation and maintenance of the systems.

Dom Wills, CEO of SOLA Future Energy, commented, “We are excited to work with a progressive partner such as Atterbury who share our vision in decentralised energy.  Solar PV presents an excellent opportunity to reduce operating costs over the long term, increasing property value and competitiveness.  Working on a bulk portfolio also allows us to best advise on the overall solar strategy for the group.” After a solar system is installed, it generally pays itself off within five years, providing the property with at least 20 further years of free energy.

The cost reductions of solar technology have made investment in solar systems an essential consideration for property owners in achieving cost efficiency and enhancing yields. Many companies are realising that solar can provide much cheaper energy per kilowatt hour than the energy provided by the centralised grid.

The agreement currently covers all Atterbury projects in South Africa as well as selected projects in Africa and abroad.

SOLA Future Energy opens its Johannesburg Office

SOLA Opens its doors in Johannesburg

Since its foundation in Cape Town in 2013, SOLA Future Energy has now an officially established Johannesburg branch to service clients in the Gauteng region, as well as neighboring African countries. In Gauteng, SOLA Future Energy has already carried out several projects, including Growthpoint’s Key West Mall, Sasol’s Cradlestone Mall,  Goldfields Head Office, and three systems for Netcare Hospitals. In addition, the company has recently secured agreements with Atterbury Property Group and Ekurhuleni Municipality, which both promise several more MW capacity of projects in the pipeline.

“SOLA has designed, constructed and continues to maintain a diverse portfolio of projects – and having a base in Johannesburg will help to expand that. African businesses are realising that putting solar on their roofs makes good business sense,” said Jonathan Skeen, GM of SOLA Future Energy Johannesburg.

Since opening its doors in Cape Town in 2013, SOLA Future Energy has been responsible for the design, construction and monitoring of 25 large rooftop PV systems, resulting in over 11 MW of installed capacity across South Africa.  Included in this portfolio is Redefine’s Black River Park, one of the first buildings in Cape Town to successfully sell electricity back on to the municipal grid and Robben Island, a fully self-sufficient hybrid PV battery project.

At the launch of their Johannesburg office, SOLA focused on the latest trends in solar technology and its application in a business context. Just a few years ago, the adoption of solar was rare – and even unappealing – to business. “In the past few years, we’ve seen an exponential growth in the interest, and adoption, of solar systems as the business case becomes clearer. We now need business to believe in the value of distributed energy versus grid systems,” said Dom Wills, CEO of SOLA Future Energy.

The Johannesburg office of SOLA Future Energy is based at Commerce Square, 39 Rivonia Road. If you would like to set up a meeting about a potential project in Johannesburg, please contact us.