Bright Future for Northern Cape

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Spanish company ACCIONA Energía and Aveng have put the Sishen solar photovoltaic plant into full swing, generating 216 gigawatt-hours (GWh) of electricity per year: it will have the highest level of electricity output of all the currently operational PV plants in Africa

The plant, with a peak capacity of 94.3 megawatts (MWp) – 74 nominal MW – is located in the municipality of Dibeng in Northern Cape. It will produce electricity equivalent to the consumption of around 100,000 South African households a year, avoiding the emission of 208,000 metric tons of C02 which is emitted by conventional coal-fired power stations into the atmosphere.

Covering approximately 250 hectares, the facility consists of 470 solar trackers that support 319,600 photovoltaic modules. If they were lined up straight, the rows of panels in each structure – seventeen 41 meter-long beams – would cover 327 kilometers, which is the distance between Cape Town and Mossel Bay. The output from the plant will be sent to the South African state owned power utility Eskom via the power grid, under a long-term energy purchase and sale (PPA) contract.

Energy Forecast editor, Gregory Simpson, sat down with ACCIONA Country Director for South Africa, Rafael Esteban recently for the inside story on this world-wide solar pioneer, which is providing a vital service to the Eskom grid. 

What was the inspiration for the Sishen Solar Plant, and why the Northern Cape in particular?

Inspiration comes from the commitment of the ACCIONA Group towards a better and sustainable world where the renewable energy is playing and will play a critical role world-wide. In terms of the location of the plant, a mix of requirements were studied, being one of the most important the solar radiation of the zone that permits the solar plants to have a good performance and energy delivery outcome.

What where some of the logistical challenges setting up operations in such a remote part of RSA? And getting the electricity to major cities without too much loss along the way?

The expertise of Aveng and Soul City as local partners resolved an important part of the challenges of setting the operations in the Northern Cape. We must say that normally the PV and wind technologies are implemented in difficult sites with logistic challenges but is part of our work - to have the best delivery anywhere.

What are some of the technical advancements that are on show in the new plants?

The Sishen plant is the one with the highest production in the whole continent. Just taking into account this situation, it is a huge technical advance and challenge. It must be noted also that on the operational phase we will be having a remote control availability that will help the technicians on site and during the nights the possibility to resolve any problem that can arise in order to have the plant on perfect functioning during the day hours

Which town/city will most benefit the new plants?

As producers, and according to the renewable program , all energy will be delivered to Eskom - which will be distributed through their grid networks whenever it will be needed.

How many new jobs will be created, and rate the level of solar skills in RSA compared to Spain?

Approximately 1.000 works where created during the construction phase. This figure will obviously decrease very much during the operational phase. We must think that the solar market in the RSA began not too long ago while in countries such as Spain we have been constructing and operating during a decade. In this sense, although it would not be fair to compare the solar skills what is undoubted is that the RSA is enjoying at this moment the best technology learned in the past years with the lowest price. A real success of the renewable program, is the skills today learned by the RSA people, which will be at the vanguard of the technology.

What other solar/wind opportunities do you see in RSA?

It is quite obvious the energy need of the RSA for the development of its economy and the stabilization of the energy system. In this sense we are happy to continue investing in both technologies that due to the short construction period can bring a good help to the current system. If we join this urgency with the growth need as a country in terms of economy and energy needs, we find out that RSA is a key market for ACCIONA Energy for the following years. In this sense, provided that there is stability on the program, clear rules and the correct return we will be interested on bidding in the next Rounds.

How can the REIPPPP be improved to move renewable energy forward into mega usage faster, and what part will ACCIONA Energy play going forward?

An extension of the program will be a good sign from the Government to ensure the growth of the renewables in RSA. But the most important thing (that has been achieved up to date) is that the program is stable and with clear rules in order to bring foreign investment but also local bank financing availability. The program must be followed without further delays to reinforce its commitment and stability.

What is the best way for solar and wind power to coexist for maximum year-round benefits?

In RSA the better wind and solar zones are quite separated. In areas with good wind resource (i.e the Western Cape), the solar radiation is not as good as in the Northern Cape. In this sense, regardless that both technologies can co-exist in the same area without any problem, in the case of RSA is at the moment well differentiated in terms of wind and solar resource.

What is the potential maximum output for a large solar farm, and ways to incorporate more mini solar/wind farms into an urban setting?

Solar farm drivers are normally the plain area, good irradiation, updated technology with better efficiency and access to the grid with enough capacity to deliver the energy. Large solar farms inside urban settings must comply to those drivers, and normally the substations that can deliver that energy are outside of urban settings or with a very limited free capacity. Mini solar is always an option for the people to have it installed on their rooftops, or gardens and provide limited energy for their consumption.

Gregory Simpson

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