South African Solar Panels Can Solve Power Dilemma: As South Africa Plunges Deeper into Darkness Induced by Power Cuts, and Loses Economic Productivity, the Search Is Seriously on for Alternative, Yet Clean and Affordable, Sources of Energy. New Developments in Solar Panel Technology Pioneered in South Africa Look Very Promising, as Khadija Sharife Reports

By Sharife, Khadija | African Business, December 2008 | Go to article overview

South African Solar Panels Can Solve Power Dilemma: As South Africa Plunges Deeper into Darkness Induced by Power Cuts, and Loses Economic Productivity, the Search Is Seriously on for Alternative, Yet Clean and Affordable, Sources of Energy. New Developments in Solar Panel Technology Pioneered in South Africa Look Very Promising, as Khadija Sharife Reports


Sharife, Khadija, African Business


For the 80% of South Africans relying on the national energy grid to power their homes, businesses and vital amenities like schools and clinics, everyday life became an unrelenting challenge when Eskom, unable to meet demand, started power shedding.

The public was advised to put their businesses and education on hold, sleep early, take up braaing (barbecuing) their meals over charcoal, substitute nature for television screens and, of course, not get sick.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

The reasons behind the energy shortage have yet to be clarified, but the Policy Framework for an Accelerated Agenda for the Restructuring of State-Owned Enterprises acknowledged the need for another coal-fired power station, at a cost of R30bn ($2.8m) as far back as 2000. According to national energy provider Eskom, all their generating facilities were operating "flat out".

But Eskom had not been given the government's go-ahead to develop another generating plant, resulting in power outages for the general public and even big industry being required to operate at 90% capacity, causing an estimated loss of $4.66bn, according to the National Energy Regulator.

The public consumes just 12.2% while industry uses over 83%, with the mining industry in particular utilising some 36% of the total electricity generated by the Eskom parastatal. The company generates 95% of this electricity in South Africa.

Over 90% of electricity generation in South Africa is derived from coal. It has been estimated that the country produces coal-fired generation at $0.93/watt, yet analysts such as Peet Du Plooy with the WWF Trade and Investment Programme says the actual costs range from $1.5/watt, "and that's capital costs only". Du Plooy's figures are based on the example of Medupi, a new coal-fired power station, and do not cover externalities or hidden costs such as the environmental impacts on ecological systems or the direct effect on human health of neuro-toxic mercury emissions.

Naturally enough, the national debate has been about whether there is any viable alternative to building more coal-fired capacity.

As environmental consultant Muna Lakhani observes, "The entire fuel chain is problematic; for coal-use issues--such as mining, the non-renewability of the resource, local air and water pollution and the mountains of ash that are generated--are all hidden."

Nuclear has been presented as a viable option, with the government actively pursuing and steadily promoting Pebble Bed Modular Reactor technology (PBMR). But Lakhani responds: "For the externalities relating to the PBMR, one must add fuel enrichment (an energy-intensive process), emissions--not only daily nuclear radiation, but also daily emissions such as strontium and caesium.

"Decommissioning must also be accounted for (often more than the original cost-the UK decommissioning bill has rocketed to $116bn) and the very real problem of how to contain radiation for hundreds of thousands of years--no safe solution has been found."

Until recently, although the most practical alternative to capital-intensive extractive industries utilising finite resources was solar energy, using photovoltaic (PV) panels manufactured from raw polysilicon proved to be too costly. In September 2008, the international price of polysilicon shot through the roof at $515/kg, up from $145/kg in 2005.

"Solar power is abundant in Africa, and that's a technology and a service from nature that doesn't come with tags attached," said Du Plooy. CIGSse solar panels, developed by South African physicist Dr Vivian Alberts of the University of Johannesburg over the better part of 13 years, represent a distinct economic advantage in thin-film technology.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Alberts, who has achieved a 20% efficiency rate on a par with the conventional PV panel, perfected the technology. The alloy is composed of copper, indium, gallium, selenium and sulphur and the photo-responsive paper-thin absorber layers are five microns thick (a human hair is 20 microns thick).

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South African Solar Panels Can Solve Power Dilemma: As South Africa Plunges Deeper into Darkness Induced by Power Cuts, and Loses Economic Productivity, the Search Is Seriously on for Alternative, Yet Clean and Affordable, Sources of Energy. New Developments in Solar Panel Technology Pioneered in South Africa Look Very Promising, as Khadija Sharife Reports
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