Eskom’s grid gets a lifeline

Innovative solar plant generates 100 MW continuous power.

Eskom’s beligured national grid, which has sunk the country into darkness for months, will get a continuous boost of 100 MW from a solar renewable energy plant in Pofadder, in the Northern Cape.

The 3km-wide KaXu Solar One project – dubbed the largest of its kind in South Africa – will power up to 80 000 homes. KaXu means ‘open blue sky’. With its parabolic design, the plant will use 360 000 mirrors to collect, store and convert sun rays into power.

KaXu’s innovation lies in its ability to store energy for power usage at night. This is possible through four pumps which use water and steam to store energy using salt – a process called solar thermal electric (STE).

The solar plant is fully operational, having been comissioned into the national grid a month ago, according to plant supervisor of the KaXu project, Sergio Olivier.

Power cuts which have seemingly become part of daily life, can be defied by the launch of the plant, says Minister of Economic Development Ebrahim Patel. “More than 400 000 South Africans will get energy here [through KaXu]. The plant is bigger than the installed energy capacity of Lesotho,” he says.

The Industrial Development Corporation and Spain-based Abengoa Solar are responsible for its establishment. The plant costs R8 billion, of which Patel says foreign investment (referring to Abengoa) contributed R1 billion and the balance was raised using debt through the Development Bank of South Africa, Rand Merchant Bank and Nedbank.

Patel took a moment to ally fears that the partnership with foreign investors, in this case Abengoa Solar, will only benefit such investors.  He says: “We wanted to progrssively increase the process of localisation. The next phase [of other IPP projects] has to focus on localisation. “

“Foreign investors have been proud of South Africa. Investors say ‘this is a country we know in the long run we’ll have a sustainable business.”

The Northern Cape currently has two solar plants in operation (including KaXu) with one more project in the pipeline, says Olivier.

He adds: “The Northern Cape has the weather and the humidity needed, as it can get up to 50 degrees here. About 500 watts per square metre [of the project] can be generated through direct radiation on a good day.”

The move away from coal, says CEO of Abengoa Solar Armando Zuluaga Zilbermann, will enable the solar plant to prevent up to 323 000 tonnes of CO2 emissions per year from being emitted.

“STE can help South Africa meet its targets and foster a reliable grid. Power has been requested though the IPP programme by government and over the next 20 years KaXu is providing Eskom power without CO2 emissions,” says Zilbermann.

Localisation or partnership refers to the allocation of a stake of the project to the local community. The Kaimer community (where the plant is located) has a 20% stake in the project through a trust. 

KaXu is one of 18 renewable energy solution projects announced by President Jacob Zuma, spreading across wind and solar energy, says Patel, adding that over the next 16 years government’s partnership with independent power producers (IPPs) will create 19 000 MW for the national grid.

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