Cape Town’s Robben Island being powered by high-tech solar ‘microgrid’

DAVOS — Being at the World Economic Forum in Davos you get to meet lots of interesting people and learn about projects that you didn’t even know existed. One such project is a solar microgrid that is powering Cape Town World Heritage Site, Robben Island. The microgrid is essentially a small-scale electric grid with both lower fuel costs and carbon emissions. It enables the island to run on solar power for at least nine months of the year: the project went live on the island late last year. I learnt about the initiative from ABB’s Head of External Communications and Content, Saswato Das, after the company showed off its e-bus technology in Davos. – Gareth van Zyl

This podcast was made possible by BrightRock, the company that introduced the first-ever needs-matched life insurance, and I’ve got Saswato Das from ABB with me. Saswato, you are part of a company that’s doing some very interesting work with microgrids. In fact you told me about a project that you guys have done on Robben Island. Can you tell us a little bit more?

Yes, we setup a microgrid on Robben Island to make the island sustainable. So microgrids are small power grids that are ideally suited for places like islands. What they do is they supply power for everything that you need for an island and you don’t need a connection to the large grid, which typically costs a lot of money and utilities are loathe to do that unless they have a lot of consumers. So Robben Island, which as you know, is off the coast of Cape Town and is uniquely blessed with a lot of sun. It has a lot of visitors and what we did was we put in a microgrid for the local authorities so that you could make use of solar power to run Robben Island in an emissions free-way.

Microgrid technology and battery energy storage are enabling Robben Island to integrate renewable solar energy into its isolated grid, while keeping the power supply stable.

There’s a museum there. There’s maybe one or two houses there so it doesn’t have a huge amount of electricity demand but the fact that it’s running the island is quite significant.

Yes, and unlike when Nelson Mandela was incarcerated there, today there are a lot of visitors. So to handle the needs of all these visitors you need quite a lot of electricity, and we actually have a very sophisticated microgrid there. It’s actually controlled digitally through a cable from Cape Town so that it’s well-balanced, it does the optimum, and this is the new world where you use renewables. You use solar power to power your house or your small communities and microgrids are suitable anywhere around the world, where there are small communities, small islands in the Caribbean, we even have a microgrid in Alaska, which normally you wouldn’t think of as a place blessed with a lot of sun but even there there’s enough sun to power the needs of the local community.

I’m sure you’re aware of Eskom in SA, which has been experiencing a lot of problems over the years. Have you guys been in touch with Eskom regarding some of this technology or other technology?

We have actually worked with Eskom in Kusile. Eskom approached us when their initial vendor couldn’t deliver things to timetable so we went through competitive bidding and we actually have a control system that runs Kusile.

How long has that been going for?

This has been going on for the last couple of years. We have managed to deliver everything on the timetable that was given to us, and everything is working wonderful the last time I checked. I was there earlier this year and saw it for myself, and it’s quite remarkable. I don’t know if you’ve been there but it’s a big site and to drive around takes a long time but today, you can control everything from a room, which looks like one that runs at an airport. It looks exactly like that, like a flight-control centre and you can see various screens. You can see what’s going on all around the power plant.

Saswato, you’ve just shown off some of the electric buses that your company is working on. It’s fascinating stuff and it looks like it’s going to replace a lot of the overhead lays that you see in many cities around the world. Can you tell us a little bit more about that and where you’re rolling it out exactly?

Sure, we have the world’s fastest charging e-bus. It’s called TOSA and it was rolled out in the city of Geneva. In Geneva it runs on a road between the airport and the conference centre. The beauty of this bus is that it charges when the bus has stopped at a bus stop to let off passengers and to pick up passengers. So it can charge in as few as 20 seconds and go the next couple of kilometres to the next bus stop. We see a lot of opportunity for this bus because it’s clean, the entire inside of the bus is meant for passengers. There are no batteries. Many technologies have big, heavy batteries, which cut-down on passenger space. The other thing is that if you can keep this bus running, if you are an Urban Transit Authority, continuously. You don’t have to leave it in the garage to charge. You go from stop-to-stop, pick up charge, and this is how it runs. Here in Davos, we have partnered with the city to show the delegates of the WEF, as you know, there’s a lot of people from a lot of different parts of the world to show that this is a technology that can operate in extreme weather. You were just on the bus and it was snowing heavily. They said we’ve had 2m of snow in the last 2 days and this bus still works, it still charges, it’s warm inside and it’s a nice way of riding around Davos.

It’s incredible because it’s the way that the world is going. In Europe you’ve got countries that are starting to enforce rules around electric cars in particular so it’s part of a bigger push to a greater movement. So it’s not just cars that are going to be electrified in 10 years’ time but buses as well.

Yes, we actually see the future of transport in all forms as electric so it’s not only cars but also buses, even ships and trains. In fact, the train that brings passengers up to Davos has a very unique technology that ABB developed. That when it goes downhill it recoups some of the energy and charges the train. It’s really state of the art and we also have some ferries in the Nordic countries that use electric cables to charge them. So we absolutely believe in the future of e-mobility, as we call it, and it’s not only cars but it’s also buses, ferries, and all sorts of transportation. In India we have an e-rickshaw. A rickshaw is a three-wheeled form of transportation that is common there and we have an e-rickshaw in the city of Mau Kabur and ABB is really into this side of technology.

That’s fascinating so does an e-rickshaw take out the human elements?

No, there’s a human driver but instead of fossil fuel all you are doing is you are using electricity.

What about rolling out this transportation technology in a country like SA? As we’ve got cities like Cape Town, Johannesburg, or Pretoria, which have quite well-developed bus networks, although they’ve still got a long way to go compared to elsewhere in the world, and they’ve also just rolled out a lot of these BRT-styled stations, which may be perfect for fast-charging so would you consider approaching authorities there as well?

Absolutely, I think what it requires is political will and some leadership to put this in place. I think it’s absolutely suitable for all cities in the world. The other thing about SA is that you have the Gautrain between Johannesburg and Pretoria. So we actually supplied a lot of the electric infrastructure for the Gautrain.

So you’ve got already got a footprint in that space in SA.

Yes, we also have a big facility in Longmeadow just outside of Johannesburg, and there we have a microgrid powering our own factory.

Is that to get off Eskom’s grid. Well, I guess Eskom’s grid would feed into your microgrid.

Yes, it’s meant to balance the load but it’s really meant to take advantage of the abundant sunlight that you have.

So it’s solar powered?


Great, Saswato, thank you very much for chatting to me.

Thank you.

This podcast was made possible by BrightRock, the company that introduced the first-ever needs-matched life insurance.