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South Africa's first solar plant goes online

14 November 2013

Electricity from the Kalkbult solar photovolataic (PV) power station flowed into the national grid on Tuesday, making it South Africa's first solar plant to come online - three months ahead of schedule.

The 75 megawatt (MW) plant near Petrusville in the sun-drenched Northern Cape will generate 135-million kilowatt hours a year, equivalent to the annual electricity consumption of 33 000 households.

The Kalkbult plant will avoid annual greenhouse gas emissions of 115 000 tons that would have been emitted by a fossil-fuelled plant, such as a coal-fired power station, in producing the equivalent power.

The plant is one of the 47 solar-, wind- and mini-hydro projects awarded 20-year contracts to generate electricity under the Department of Energy's renewable energy programme for independent power producers.

Total investment in the programme is estimated at R74-billion, with the government's recent acceptance of 17 new bids pushing this closer to the R100-billion mark.

The Kalkbult solar plant was built by the Norwegian-based company Scatec Solar with local partners. It was commissioned in 10 months, with construction beginning in late November 2012.

"Our teams worked literally day and night to make this happen," Raymond Carlsen, chief executive of Scatec Solar, said in a statement on Tuesday. "Suppliers made a huge effort to deliver their services and equipment, and local people who worked on the project were quick to learn despite the fact that many did not have previous experience in this kind of work."

Introduced by the Department of Energy three years ago, the renewable energy programme for independent power producers supports South Africa's international commitments to combat climate change by reducing its near total dependence on coal-based electricity and its high greenhouse gas emissions.

The project also gives momentum to the Green Economy Accord, signed three years ago by the government, business and labour with the goal of creating 300 000 new jobs based on renewable energy generation, energy efficiency, biofuel production, manufacturing of equipment to support "green" projects, and natural resource conservation and rehabilitation.

The Kalkbult plant covers 105 hectares of a working sheep farm and includes 312 000 solar panels mounted on 156 kilometres of substructure linked to inverters, transformers and a high voltage sub-station.

During peak construction periods, more than 600 employees - the majority from the local community - worked at the Kalkbult construction site. About 16% of employees were women, who participated at all levels, from management and administration to construction activities.

As required by the government from all independent power producers, part of the revenue from the Kalkbult facility and a portion of dividends has been earmarked to support social and economic development initiatives in communities within a 50-kilometre radius of the plant.

"The fact that renewable energy can work in harmony with the environment and without disrupting surrounding activities is often overlooked," said Carlsen. "After 20 years, we can upgrade the project with the latest technology and continue operations for many years, or we can dismantle it and leave the environment in its original natural state."

Two other projects being developed by Scatec Solar and its South African partners will improve on the Kalkbult plant's electricity generation performance, which is based on solar panels mounted at a fixed angle to the sun. A 40MW plant near Hannover, also in the Northern Cape, and a 75MW plant near Burgersdorp in the Eastern Cape, will have panels mounted on single axes, enabling them to track the sun and optimise electricity generation.

Carlsen said the new plants, scheduled for commissioning during 2014, would be able to generate about 20% more electricity than fixed-panel plants.

Of the 47 renewable energy facilities contracted during the first two phases of South Africa's renewable energy programme, 27 are solar PV plants that will have combined installed capacity of 17 048MW, with Scatec Solar providing 190MW.

Scatec Solar and SAinfo reporter

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