After the gloom of electricity blackouts and smog, the future of clean energy in South Africa suddenly seems bright enough to be seen from space one day.
This is the strange vision that will be presented to 200 executives and investors in the Northern Cape this week, when a plan for the country to host the world’s biggest solar power plant will be unveiled.
The ambitious proposal entails an area the size of hundreds of soccer fields near Upington to be covered in giant mirrors and solar panels, producing three times the power of the Koeberg nuclear plant and using nothing but sunlight.
And the completed park will cost a staggering R150-billion – four times the price of the World Cup – if the government can convince enough investors to buy in.
To be funded by foreign and domestic investors and regulated by a local solar authority, the park is to sell its power to South African consumers by providing almost one-10th of the power of the entire grid by 2022.
Jonathan de Vries, a special adviser to the minister of energy and the project officer for South Africa’s “solar park”, said plans were “at a very early stage”, but “will become a reality”.
Following a glowing feasibility report by the Clinton Climate Initiative – which described South Africa’s “solar resource” as one of the world’s best – a major US construction company, Fluor, has rushed to complete a detailed plan for the giant project, timed for this week’s investors’ conference.
Brad Friesen, vice-president of renewable power at Fluor, confirmed that the solar project was the world’s largest, adding: “South Africa has one of the best solar resources on the planet, and we think this is a great project, which is absolutely doable.”
He said the vast fields of polished mirrors would not be a hazard to pilots flying over Upington, as the shape of the mirrors focused the glare precisely onto thermal tubes, not into the air.
Approved last month by the cabinet, the initiative has moved so fast that minister of energy Dipuo Peters had to release a statement last week on how the massive initiative could fit in with the “IRP2010” electricity master plan.
De Vries said although “all the studies and assessments will be done properly”, urgency was required because “this is a race in every sense to become a player in the global solar industry”.
“Some of the people in the government who have been moving this project forward are the same people who helped to deliver the World Cup. This has all happened in five months,” he said. “Your lights or computer are on right now because somewhere coal is burning. We need to shift that to a clean, renewable source which is just as cost-effective.”
However, Vivian Alberts, a University of Johannesburg professor who has patented a new kind of solar cell, warned that the ambitious scale of the plan posed a “real danger” of failure and urged the government to grow the project in small increments.
De Vries revealed that new data received this week suggested that “instead of one big park, as originally envisaged, it might be three of four smaller parks in a solar corridor”.
He said an “overwhelming response” to the proposal had seen 200 representatives of both international companies and local manufacturers confirm their attendance at this week’s meeting in Upington. Further meetings had been arranged between potential investors and local makers of glass and steel components.
He said the first phase of 1000 megawatts – similar to a medium-size coal power station – would be largely in the form of fields of ordinary “PV” solar panels, which could produce power for the South African grid by the end of 2012.
However, although a relatively cheap and simple technology, the power from these panels, which harness sunlight, could be interrupted on cloudy days and cannot be stored.
As a result, the following phases would involve a mix of technologies, featuring a technique that uses the sun’s heat instead, which can be stored and released onto the grid even at night.
This “solar thermal” phase would likely see vast fields of specially curved mirrors following the sun across the sky each day, focusing its heat onto tubes of oil.
Friesen said: “I think that the Clinton Climate Initiative and the Department of Energy would like to see a higher percentage of solar thermal because it’s a higher-quality power.”
De Vries said: “Global demand for solar power is only going to get bigger. North Africa, Australia, India and the US are all developing solar park concepts, but we have the best resources, and we want to win that race.”