Castor Boshof – Free State Province – South Africa

#WeAreSOLA: SOLA Future Energy and Aurora Power Solutions join forces to provide Africa-wide renewable energy offering

Today marks the beginning of our newly consolidated group: a renewable-energy powerhouse that will transform Africa through clean energy.

You may be familiar with our group already: Aurora Power Solutions started in 2008 as a utility-scale solar PV project developer and financier, with over 313 MW of developed projects under its belt; SOLA Future Energy was started in 2013, concentrating on solar PV opportunities in the private sector, building 37 MW solar projects for commercial clients, and continuing to operate over 55 projects.

Although operating in different market segments, the decision to join both companies together as the SOLA Group is a reflection of the changing global market in renewable energy. With its vertically integrated solar PV offering expanding across the entire value chain, SOLA now has the ability to meet diversifying energy needs in Africa’s growing renewable energy market.

Responding to a growing market in Africa – and a changing market globally

Over the last 10 years, the cost of solar PV technology have declined so rapidly that the technology, once an expensive investment, is now able to compete globally with other, more “traditional” methods of large-scale electricity generation. This is largely due to the 80% cost reduction of solar power modules since 2010, making solar PV the cheapest form of energy worldwide.

In addition, electrification models are starting to change. With the rise of renewable technology, flexible electricity markets are becoming the norm – allowing offtakers to purchase the cheapest electricity at a given time, and changing the way in which electricity is produced globally.

The same developments are happening in Africa. In South Africa, 2018 held much in the way of energy sector developments. The renewables-vs-nuclear stalemate came to an end when then South African Energy Minister Jeff Radebe gave the approval 27 long overdue renewables projects. In August, the much-awaited draft Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) was released, showing favour toward renewables and gas and less coal and nuclear.

The IRP draft, combined with the ANC’s policy manifesto, showed 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: in other words, following global market trends for electricity generation.

In addition, the Carbon Tax Act No 15 of 2019 came into effect on 1 June,  as announced by the Minister of Finance in the 2019 Budget. Government has outlined its commitment to play its part in global efforts to mitigate GHG emissions as outlined in the National Climate Change Response Policy (NCCRP) of 2011 and the National Development Plan (NDP) of 2012. This move, along with a recent announcement that Nersa would start to issue electricity generation licenses before the release of the IRP, bodes well for both government and commercial buyers of electricity.

The SOLA Group has a vertically-integrated PV offering across the whole value chain

Structured for growth

The merger of the SOLA Group comes at a time where there has never been a greater need for new energy generation. In March this year, the World Economic Forum’s Energy Transition Index, South Africa ranked second last out of 115 economies, on the scale of progress in transition towards a more sustainable and secure global energy system. This, coupled with Eskom’s on-going state of emergency and 15% tariff increase, has created an urgent need for collaboration between government and the private sector.

The unique structure of the SOLA Group – an Assets division that focuses on large-scale utility project development and actualisation, as well as financed commercial projects – and a Build division, that is able to see projects build and continue to operate effectively – enables the business to move into the growing market for renewable energy in South Africa, and Africa more broadly.

The merger brings together a large solar project pipeline, including 48MW in Zambia and 79MW in South Africa with various government, commercial and industrial clients. There are also commercial-scale microgrid projects being built in Mozambique and the Seychelles, and solar PV wheeling projects, which will see energy being produced remotely in high-irradiance areas and transported via grid infrastructure to commercial offtakers.

Existing projects of the group include a diverse range of renewable electricity generation projects, with varying ownership structures.

Our Group carries forward four projects awarded in South Africa’s Small Projects Programme. In phase two, the group was successfully awarded Castor (5MW) and Capella (5MW) projects as the EPC contractor, following successful award of Adams (5MW) and Bellatrix (5MW) projects in the First Phase of the Programme.

The Cedar Mill Mall project is a unique project in that it utilises both the efficacy of solar PV and batteries with the existing electricity grid to optimise the affordability for the client. The islandable on-grid microgrid enabled 300 jobs to be created and this particular project has served as a significant boost for the local economy of Clanwilliam. Since the system began operating in August 2018, over 800 000 kWh of clean energy has been generated.

Another exciting pioneer project for us was the Robben Island solar project. The project was launched in October 2017 and it continues to provide clean energy to the island today. Robben Island has had to rely solely on diesel generators for its electricity production as it has never been connected to the main grid of South Africa. We were tasked with developing a complete microgrid project, combining solar PV with the diesel generators and lithium-ion batteries in order to reduce diesel consumption significantly. We were, at the time, pioneering the largest off-grid battery project in the southern hemisphere.

As part of a consortium with a leading independent power producer, Globeleq, we will soon be starting the development of 40 MW of solar power in Zambia. The project forms part of the country’s GET FiT programme, designed to assist the Government in the implementation of renewable and sustainable energy.

This is an exciting time for the SOLA Group, as it enters the next stage of growth. Joining the two companies will enable the Group to provide extensive solar PV services as a consolidated offering to further clean energy in Africa.

SOLA Group - providing clean energy to the African continent

Conclusion

We have an extraordinary opportunity for electricity reform in Africa and indeed in the world more broadly.  In Africa, if our renewable resources are harnessed efficiently we not only have 20 years of upskilling and job creation ahead of us, 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 Africa’s economy. This is a major task, but if achieved, we have a lot to look forward to.

Capella Stella – North West Province – South Africa

SOLA awarded 40 MW solar projects in Zambia

The SOLA Group, in a consortium with Globeleq, has been awarded the development of 40 MW of solar power in Zambia. The project forms part of Zambia’s GET FiT programme, designed to assist the Zambian Government in the implementation of renewable energy.

“We are excited to be awarded this opportunity,” says Dr Chris Haw, chairperson of the SOLA board, and founder of the developer company, SOLA Assets. “Once built, these projects will provide reliable and clean electricity to the Zambian government for over 20 years,” he adds.

The projects represent the first phase in Zambia’s procurement of renewable energy, forming part of 100 MW of solar PV capacity. SOLA’s consortium with Globeleq was selected as one of 10 consortiums to submit two project proposals after an initial qualification stage. SOLA’s two projects, “Aurora SOLA 1 and 2”, will consist of 20 MW each.

The GET FiT Zambia programme aims to diversify Zambia’s power mix, as well as encourage private sector participation by a wider range of developers, and boost the operating environment for renewable energy IPPs in Zambia. During their first year, the awarded projects are expected to produce 360 GWh of clean power for the country.

Ryan Anderson, the Tender Agent Team Leader on the GETFiT programme notes, “it is important to recognize that these tariff results represent a truly competitive outcome. Not only were developers required to find and acquire their own suitable sites and pay for shallow grid connection, but GET FiT Zambia has offered no form of grant financing, nor has it arranged for concessional finance.”

“The competitive pricing of the awarded projects shows the affordability of solar PV as an energy source,” says Dr Haw. “Zambia’s commitment to procure clean energy is not just about supporting a low carbon future – it is also about providing affordable energy to grow its economy,” he adds.

With South Africa’s recent electricity crisis and widespread load shedding, there has been much debate about bailing out the embattled state utility, Eskom, versus allowing IPPs to fill the power gap. In Zambia, the awarded energy projects will allow IPPs to provide low-cost energy to the Zambian government, encouraging economic development.

How to prevent loadshedding in commercial buildings

3 Options to proof your commercial and industrial building from load shedding

The nationwide spate of load shedding in South Africa is not just a highly frustrating situation for individuals: it is a hindrance to businesses and the economy in general. As South Africa starts to approach level 5 and 6 load shedding scenarios, it is important to look at the alternatives available to businesses around the country in order to prevent the loss of productivity across the board. At the same time, various different alternative sources of power should be evaluated based on their cost-effectiveness and environmental impact. The following article explores various load shedding prevention methods for commercial and industrial buildings.

Option 1: Using backup diesel generator

Option 2: Retrofitting a grid-tied solar PV system

Option 3: Going off grid using a solar PV/battery microgrid


Option 1: Using backup generators

This commonly used form of commercial backup power consists of diesel gensets that switch on when the power goes off. This is a good option for ad-hoc power cuts in places that cannot afford to lose power, such as hospitals, convention centres and large retail centres.

Before relying on a diesel backup generator, though, the system should be tested with the total load of the building to make sure that it is able to take the full electricity load. If it not possible for the gensets to handle the building’s entire load, an “emergency” scenario – where nothing but the critical systems are backed up – should be tested. An Automatic Transfer Switch (ATS) will be needed to ensure that when the power goes off, the diesel generators are initiated.

Within Eskom’s current loadshedding trajectory, using backup diesel generators is likely to be very expensive, depending on the load size of the building. Diesel itself is much more expensive per kWh than typical Eskom tariffs, and even more expensive when compared with the costs per kWh of solar PV. When evaluating the efficacy of installing diesel gensets, the following questions should be asked:

  1. How many hours per day will the genset(s) be required?
  2. How many litres of diesel are likely to be required?
  3. What are the ongoing maintenance requirements of consistently using diesel generators?
Robben Island has historically used diesel generators to provide the power needed on the island.
Robben Island has historically used diesel generators to provide the power needed on the island.

Option 2: Retrofitting a grid-tied solar PV system

In South Africa, many commercial buildings – hospitals, retail centres, distribution centres, etc – have grid-tied solar PV systems that supply power from the sun during the day. These relatively simple systems are tied to the grid, so they do not provide 100% of the offtaker energy requirement but rather supplement it. Unfortunately, grid-tied solar PV systems do not automatically prevent a building from experiencing load shedding.

Because solar generates Direct Current (DC) power, this needs to be converted into Alternating Current (AC) to be used in buildings as electricity. In order for a solar system to produce usable electricity, therefore, a solar inverter is required. However solar inverters are designed to switch off during a grid outage.

Why is this? For grid-tied solar PV systems, this serves as a vital safety mechanism for personnel that might be working on transmission lines during outages. With solar inverters off, buildings with solar PV systems are prevented from generating power during a grid outage and potentially exporting power to the national grid, which could be fatal for maintenance personnel.

Solar inverters are designed according to international safety standards that require this functionality, which means that grid-tied inverters cannot operate in off-grid conditions. As such, when Eskom goes down, most solar systems do, too.

However, this does not mean that large buildings with solar PV systems do not have options for load shedding. With careful engineering, It is possible to form one’s own “microgrid”, by replicating a fake grid-tied scenario to “trick” the solar inverters into staying on. This requires the use of a generator or battery, and specialised control equipment.

In order to retrofit a grid-tied solar system to operate during load shedding, two essential steps need to be taken. Firstly, the system needs to be isolated from the grid to prevent any exporting of power that could affect the safety of maintenance personnel. Secondly, a voltage forming source is required, in order to provide a reference voltage and frequency to the solar inverter.

Therefore, to prevent a grid-tied solar PV system from going out during a power outage, the following is required:

  1. Hardware that can disconnect the main supply from the grid, effectively isolating the building/facility from the grid.
  2. A diesel generator or battery bank that can provide backup power for the entire facility and provide the necessary voltage and frequency reference to the solar inverters.

These two points require careful engineering and a proper control system to manage the change-over, the dispatching of generators/batteries, and synchronisation of the solar inverters. It also has to oversee resynchronisation to the grid once the grid is available again. This can be automated and should not need any human input. Further, the system would need to be sized correctly in order not to trip under various loading scenarios.

With these two mechanisms in place, there would be a short down-time after an unexpected grid outage, due to the system having to switch itself on and switch to off-grid mode. Once switched over, however, the solar powered electricity which is being generated can be distributed throughout the building.

In order to avoid an outage entirely, it is possible to either isolate from the grid before an expected outage, or have an uninterruptible power supply (UPS) capable of providing continuous, uninterrupted power during an outage.

solar could help Africa's economy to grow

Option 3: Going off-grid: Using solar PV, batteries and Generators to go off-grid

Taking a commercial building off the grid entirely is another, although slightly pricier, option. Solar PV systems, when combined with energy storage, can store excess solar power produced during the day and distribute this later when needed. Solar PV is now one of the cheapest forms of energy, and its distributed nature means it’s perfect for use at source, where it is needed.

However, the costs of batteries and the sophisticated engineering of microgrid systems needs to be evaluated against the building’s requirements. Perhaps, a commercial or retail building operator does not mind paying a premium if that means consistent, clean power. (Microgrids also have particular relevance to supplying power in weak-grid scenarios – such as the one in Cedar Mill Mall which supplements the grid’s 250 kVA with an additional 250 kVA of power).

If your commercial or industrial building is currently using its diesel generators around 30% of the time, the business case for a solar PV and battery combined microgrid will likely look feasible. In a typical stage 4 load shedding scenario, power cuts generally occur for around 7 hours per day. Given the assumption that the energy load in the building is similar throughout the day and that diesel generators are being used to supply power consistently when the grid goes down, this would equate to around 30% of the total electricity consumption – making it a worthwhile investigation.

Whether it is a backup generator, installing a solar PV system with a backup generator or battery, or going entirely off-grid, there are options for commercial and industrial buildings in South Africa to prevent the damage that load shedding can do to business.

Cedar Mill Mall goes solar
Cedar Mill Mall in Clanwilliam is an islandable on-grid microgrid