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Sunny days for SA science

Solar technology returns after a decade of global development.

CAPE TOWN – Photovoltaic technology is one of the fastest growing industries in the world and for manufacturers of solar panels, sunny South Africa is an exciting solar market. This is helped by the fact that the country is an importer of solar technology, with no local manufacture of solar cells taking place.

This could change.

After a gap of almost twelve years, Professor Vivian Alberts, who developed a innovative thin film solar technology at the University of Johannesburg between 1993 and 2002, has established a demonstration plant for the production and marketing of a thin-film photovoltaic technology, used in solar panels, at the Technopark in Stellenbosch.

This is in partnership with German engineering company Singulus Technologies, an expert in manufacturing optical discs, semiconductors and crystalline and thin-film solar cells.

Their objective is to commercialise the technology in South Africa and establish a fully-fledged photovoltaic manufacturing industry in this country.

The timing could be fortuitous. After a slow start, the South African government has become increasingly supportive of solar technology. The government’s target of building 8.4 gigawatts of solar photovoltaic capacity by 2030, combined with the success of its large-scale tendering process in attracting investment to fulfil that goal, positions the country as the most attractive emerging PV market globally, according to analysis by IHS Technology.

As the renewable energy programme grows in scale and credibility, so has local procurement requirements. To be eligible for IDC funding, companies participating in the government’s REFIT programme have to commit to 70% local content in their installations.

Alberts’ thin film technology design allows for the production of thinner and cheaper solar panels that are less reliant on silicon than conventional panels. The thin-film module includes a semi-conductor alloy, comprising five chemical elements. The total thickness of the active materials in the thin-film module is 3 microns, compared with the traditional first generation silicon technology with a thickness of more than 300 microns.

“Silicon is too expensive,” says Professor Alberts, speaking at the launch of the demonstration plant on Monday. “It would not be viable to build a plant manufacturing conventional panels in South Africa. The margins are too thin and to survive manufacturers would have to be vertically integrated.”

There has also been large-scale investment in solar power installations resulting in global overcapacity which has been exported to South Africa among other countries. In many cases this has lead to trade battles, such as that between China and Canada and China and the US.

While thin film solar panels can be 30% cheaper than conventional panels, it is difficult to compete with imported product from countries where production is subsidised. For this reason Alberts would like the South African government to push local content requirements up to the 90% mark.

The demonstration plant will serve as the basis for the licensing of photovoltaic production facilities world-wide and in Africa,” says Alberts. Panels produced in the facility will be used internally and in facilities provided for investors such as the University of Johannesburg and the IDC.

“The panels we produce here are for demonstration purposes, we don’t want to compete with potential licensees.”

Negotiations are already underway with a number of investors and possible clients, he says. To commercialise the technology and build a plant capable of fabricating a million modules a year (equivalent to 100MW of power) would require an investment of R1bn.

A short history

Following Alberts’ research breakthrough, his employer, the University of Johannesburg, formed the company Photovoltaic Technology Intellectual Property (PTIP) to commercialise the photovoltaic technology.

In 2005 PTIP entered into a licence agreement with Germany’s IFE Thin Film Technology. It was at a plant in Brandenburg, Germany that the technology was first commercialised. Following restructuring IFE became Johanna (for Johannesburg) Solar Technology. JST had seven shareholders, including South Africa’s State-owned Central Energy Fund, and private-sector investors Richmont-Venfin and Anglo Coal.

In 2010 this company was sold to the Bosch Group, which is making aggressive inroads into the photovoltaic market.

The South African government was instrumental in helping to fund the development and early commercialisation of the technology. One of the conditions to global commercialisation was that the technology could be licensed internationally, but that the intellectual property rights as well as the rights to commercialise the technology in Africa, had to remain in South Africa.

In 2011 the University of Johannesburg, the IDC and the Technology Innovation Agency invested R180m in the project for the establishment of the pilot plant in Stellenbosch.

Commercialisation of the technology is one imperative; the other is ongoing research and development to ensure the technology remains at the forefront of the solar revolution.

Over the twenty years of the product’s development, Alberts has trained over 18 (MSc and PhD) students, ensuring that key skills are produced for future generations.

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