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With solar PV, we are starting to see the light

29 January 2013 - 03:01 By Crispian Olver
Crispian Olver
Crispian Olver

South Africa has a burgeoning solar photovoltaic (PV) industry, which has for many years been supplying PV power to remote installations that are not connected to the Eskom grid.

Schools and clinics in rural areas, as well as cellphone masts dotted all over the country, have demonstrated the effectiveness of PV in these situations.

But despite an abundance of solar radiation, we have been slow to follow the lead set by southern European and Brics countries in building large solar PV farms to generate power.

Now South Africa has boldly followed in their footsteps, with the first large-scale renewable energy projects having been signed off by the Department of Energy.

The procurement process, while slow and cumbersome, has been roundly applauded by the industry for its integrity and methodical planning.

Quite significantly, there are some large PV projects included in the list, generating up to 75MW of power.

In all, there are 18 solar PV farms that have been selected as preferred bidders, which between them will generate more than 630MW of power - equivalent to a small coal-fired plant.

This is a big shift in the PV industry. And there are social benefits beyond the low-carbon renewable energy.

A total of 6351 jobs will be created during the construction of these farms. Operating and maintaining the PV farms is not labour-intensive, but will, nevertheless-create another 283 jobs.

The projects have come a long way in their development, but they have faced some difficult regulatory hurdles on the way. One of them is the rather arduous Environmental Impact Assessments requirements for solar PV projects.

Despite some of the projects taking place on already developed land, and despite the limited environmental impact of PV panels, the projects still have to go through a full environmental impact assessment before they can be registered and accepted by the department.

Following a number of engagements between the PV industry and the Department of Environmental Affairs, the Department of Energy has agreed to amend the Environmental Impact Assessments regulations in order to expedite PV projects on developed land.

This is a big step forward for the industry. Now they are talking about expanding into small- scale rooftop PV panels. Watch this space for a big expansion of PV projects in the future.