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May 28, 2010

Big scale-up plans for grid-connected Karoo microsolar plant

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The developers of a new small-scale solar-energy project in the Karoo town of Copperton, some 60 km north of Prieska, in the Northern Cape, are optimistic that there is potential to scale up the facility, in phases, into a far larger solar park, with an eventual nameplate capacity of 500 MW.

The 7-kW photovoltaic (PV) facility has been installed by South African independent power producer (IPP) Mulilo Renewable Energy (MRE), in conjunction with its Chinese shareholder, Yingli Green Energy, using PV panels supplied from China.

The R350 000 ‘grid-connected’ pilot project is capable of producing 10 MWh/y, which is currently being donated to the 600-strong Copperton community. Power has, in fact, been flowing since April 26, 2010, and is servicing the community hall and church.

But MRE and Yingli Green Energy, which is a significant vertically integrated PV manufacturer and IPP, have immediate intentions of expanding the facility into a 10-MW grid-connected power plant over the next 12 months.

MRE’s Christopher Aberdien reveals that an application has already been made for the inclusion of the extended facility into South Africa’s recently confirmed renewable-energy feed-in tariff, or Refit, under which PV power plants, with a capacity of more than 1 MW, are eligible for a tariff of R4,49/kWh.

Any expansion beyond the initial 10 MW, with the potential having been set at 500 MW, would be developed in phases over the next ten years, and could embrace other renewable-energy technologies, including wind.

Besides the Karoo solar park, MRE is also progressing with plans for 11 wind farms around the country, together with the China LongYuan Corporation, a subsidiary of one of the largest State-owned power companies, with a total installed capacity of 80 000 MW. In fact, MRE and its partners envisage investing R5-billion in the renewable-energy projects over the next three to four years.

For the Copperton pilot, Aberdien tells Engineering News that MRE and Yingli decided to proceed, on risk, despite the absence of regulatory certainty, particularly regarding the power purchase agreement guidelines and the identity and nature of the buying entity.

The decision was based on a belief that the South African government would start with the Refit process shortly. “We decided to play a proactive role by being the first grid-connected solar facility in the country,” Aberdien explains.

MRE, of Cape Town, is currently testing the suitability of the Chinese-made solar modules for South Africa’s harsh conditions.

“This tiny place was originally built as a mining town, but since the operations closed down, it’s been a tough struggle for the residents,” says MRE director Johnny Cullum.

“This beginning, although it benefits only a small number of people right now, represents our broad-ranging solar and wind energy initiative for the whole of South Africa.”

MRE intends to separately manage the eventual wind and solar operations within its fleet, the development of which is also eligible to benefit from the China Africa Development Fund (CADFund).

The CADFund was established in June 2007 and now has access to several billion dollars provided by the China Development Bank. This equity investment fund aims to help Chinese companies develop cooperative ventures with Africa and to enter the African market.

Therefore, MRE views the Karoo development as the “small beginnings for a gigantic, multibillion-rand South African solar and wind energy initiative”, with major implications for the Northern Cape and South Africa’s future energy security.

Edited by: Martin Zhuwakinyu
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