Coal-addicted South Africa may be on the verge of going solar. More than that, the nation could become the springboard for a solar rise in the whole sun-rich region.
On Oct. 9, the government of South Africa and the Clinton Climate Foundation signed a memorandum of understanding to develop the nation's first "solar park." The project could add up to 5,000 MW of grid-connected solar to South Africa's energy mix, which currently stands at close to zero.
The first step is a feasibility study to size up the commercial potential of the project — the solar radiation, land availability, transmission access and cost, water, job creation, among other things.
Of course, pledging to make a business plan is not the same as pledging to break ground — but it's a start. And it comes amid other signs that South Africa is getting serious about its solar future.
For one, national utility giant Eskom has stated that its on-again, off-again plans for a concentrating solar power (CSP) facility, the first on the continent, are on again.
For years, the state-owned Eskom, one of the world's biggest power companies and largest carbon polluters, had plans on the books for a 100-MW electrical CSP facility in the Northern Cape. But six months ago, the cash-strapped utility abruptly put the $814 million plant on hold.
No longer. Eskom now claims to have a budget of $4.1 billion for solar and smart grid pilot demonstrations over the next 10 years. That money would cover the cost of the CSP plant, said Eskom Technology, Strategy and Planning Manager Barry MacColl at the recent ISES Solar World Congress, although he added the budget still must get approved.
If the plant gets completed, it will supposedly drop South Africa from the world's 15th biggest carbon dioxide emitter to the 25th.
CSP systems are comprised of giant arrays of solar mirrors that concentrate direct desert sunlight to drive a conventional steam turbine and generate electricity. They're often cited as the most likely zero-emission technology to rival coal-fired power.
In South Africa, CSP potential is enormous. Estimates put capacity at 540,000 MW for the whole country.For context, the total electricity generating capacity of South Africa today is around 40,000 MW.
No wonder Google-funded CSP-developer eSolar wants in. The California startup just announced that it will be partnering with Johannesburg-based Clean Energy Solutions (CES) to open eSolarSA. The company will sell its technology in South Africa and six other Sub-Saharan African nations.
eSolar burst onto the solar scene in 2008 with its breakthrough, pre-fab solar power towers. The company's lego-like 46-megawatt modules can scale up to any size. They're designed for rapid construction, uniform modularity and unlimited scalability, the company says. And they're relatively cheap, ideal for Africa:
"eSolar's CSP technology is the perfect fit for South Africa in its quest to generate affordable, clean energy and develop local jobs, particularly in rural areas," said Stuart Fredman, managing director of South Africa's CES.
Fredman added that eSolar could help "establish Southern Africa as a new hotspot for solar development."
That won't be easy. South Africa is 90 percent dependent on coal.
The government's 4 percent renewable energy target by 2013 is expected to partially help usher in a new market for solar. And so will this: New coal power is no longer that cheap. The price of coal in South Africa has climbed steeply in the last three years, and the climate costs of fossil fuels in a coming, carbon-constrained are starting to be factored in. On top of that, energy shortages started hitting the country in 2008, making it clear that new, cleaner and cheaper sources are needed.
The fact that CSP is one of the technologies subsidized under South Africa's new renewable feed-in tariff could be another boon for the industry.
But for the world of Big Solar in Africa, nothing would be a bigger boon than bringing the Desertec concept to life.
The plan seeks to transform the northern part of Africa into a solar hub for Europe by constructing a supergrid of CSP plants on 6,500 square miles of Sahara desert. The architects behind it claim the scheme could eventually meet much of the continent's electricity needs.
In July, a heavy-hitting group of 20 German firms formed a consortium to begin raising $555 billion for the much-discussed project. That kind of financing would be enough to power 15 percent of the continent by 2050 and turn the Saharan heat into a major electrical source, with spin off benefits, including local energy and desalination of sea water for drinking.
And now there are rumblings that dozens of European and North African utilities are vying to join the Desertec initiative. It seems investors may be slowly waking up to the idea that an Africa with a large solar market may benefit everybody.