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Renewable energy like solar and wind is set to play an important role in South Africa’s energy mix in coming years, as Eskom shuts down some of its ageing coal fleet and attempts to make its generation greener. But despite the urgency in addressing loadshedding, the utility has only added about 76MW of additional solar power in a year. Also, without expensive battery storage, solar power plants also can’t supply electricity during evening peak demand periods, when the sun has set. That’s why some energy experts warn that South Africa still needs at least some additional coal or gas power to supply baseload capacity. – Sandra Laurence
Biggest solar plant in South Africa vs the world
South Africa’s largest solar power plant is the Solar Capital De Aar Project in the Northern Cape.
The photovoltaic (PV) facility has an installed generating capacity of 175MW, enough to provide electricity to roughly 75,000 homes per year.
It consists of more than half a million PV modules covering 473 hectares.
The project was split into two construction phases, with the first finished in August 2014 and providing 85.26MW of capacity.
The second phase added another 90MW of generating capacity about two years later. Overall, it took 28 months to construct the entire facility at a cost of R4.8 billion.
Below are images of Solar Capital’s De Aar solar power farm in the Northern Cape.
While its capacity is substantially larger than the numerous 50-100MW solar plants across the country, it pales in comparison to the biggest solar farms in the world.
At the time of publication, the largest solar plant globally was Bhadla Solar Park in India, with an installed capacity of 2,245MW, nearly 13 times that of Solar Capital’s De Aar plant.
The plant is built in a desert considered to be nearly uninhabitable.
Its peak daily temperatures range between 46-48°C, and it frequently gets battered by hot winds and sandstorms. But its hot and largely cloud-free conditions make it perfect for generating solar power.
Bhadla’s construction began in March 2015, with four phases completed by March 2019. It now comprises over 10 million solar panels and spans an area of roughly 5,700 hectares.
When the conditions are right, it can produce more power than Koeberg nuclear power station at full load or about half of Medupi’s generating capacity.
Plans are in place to expand its capacity to 3,500MW in the future.
Satellite photo of Badla Solar Park in India. Credit: Copernicus Sentinel-2 satellite
Other massive solar power plants include Huanghe Hydropower Hainan Solar Park in China and Pavagada Solar Park in India — with respective capacities of 2,200MW and 2,050MW.
As of 11 January 2023, Eskom’s renewable statistics page showed it had around 2,787MW of maximum solar generating power connected to the grid.
2,287MW of this capacity is from PV plants, while a further 500MW came from concentrated solar plants (CSPs). The latter directs the sun’s heat to a large tank storing molten salt.
This salt creates the heat necessary to turn water into steam and turn a turbine to generate electricity.
There are currently six such plants operational in South Africa, four with a generating capacity of 100MW and two producing 50MW each.
These plants’ molten salt can also preserve heat to provide an additional three hours of power when the sun is not shining.
A seventh CSP — the Redstone Solar Thermal Plant — is currently under construction near Postmasburg in the Northern Cape. It is scheduled to be operational in the fourth quarter of 2023.
Minimal solar generation added in past year
Renewable energy like solar and wind is set to play an important role in South Africa’s energy mix in the coming years, as Eskom shuts down some of its ageing coal fleet and attempts to make its generation greener.
But despite the urgency in addressing load-shedding, the utility has only added about 76MW of additional solar power in a year.
Several private solar power plants have also come online, including Amazon’s 10-megawatt facility in the Northern Cape.
Fortunately, wind power capacity has seen more significant growth, increasing from just above 3,000MW to 3,443MW in the past year.
Eskom needs to spend billions of rand on upgrading its transmission network to carry electricity from all the additional capacity expected to come online in the coming years.
In addition, solar and wind power are generally less efficient than coal, gas, and nuclear power. Solar power efficiency is significantly lowered during inclement weather, while lower wind speeds can substantially reduce wind generation.
Without expensive battery storage, solar power plants also can’t supply electricity during evening peak demand periods, as these occur when the sun is down.
That is why some energy experts have warned that South Africa needs at least some additional coal or gas power to supply baseload capacity.
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