The Department of Science and Technology (DST) is funding two solar energy projects that are set to become game changers in the research and development (R&D) of solar solutions.
“Among the various renewable-energy projects relating to solar power, we are working on is the R&D into thin-film solar panels established by Photovoltaic Technology Intellectual Property (PTiP) innovations,” says DST general deputy director Mmboneni Muofhe.
He explains to Engineering News that PTiP is a company founded in 2005 as a result of a research initiative done over many years at the University of Johannesburg. PTiP is now based in Stellenbosch, in the Western Cape, where it has continued developing copper/indium/ gallium/selenium/sulphite- (CIGSS-) based photovoltaic (PV) panels.
PV devices based on CIGSS have a high conversion efficiency owing to the thin-film technology and can absorb 99% of the solar spectrum with 1μm of material, Muofhe notes.
While most PV technology is developed either in Asia or Europe, the CIGSS panels are also designed to be robust enough to withstand African conditions and, therefore, enhance their durability and life span.
Owing to this, he adds, the DST will engage with other stakeholders to ensure maximum uptake of the technology provided through this project.
The other project that Muofhe believes will be a breakthrough in the sphere of solar power generation is Helio 100, also located in Stellenbosch, which the DST is funding through the Technology Innovation Agency (TIA) in an effort to increase the local content of concentrated solar power (CSP) plants.
The DST/TIA funded the development of solar thermal technology and the establishment of a 100 kW CSP pilot facility in Stellenbosch. The facility uses smaller, smarter, modular heliostats, or solar collectors, that concentrate the sun’s energy to generate heat and power at lower costs.
Muofhe sees the technology as a game changer in terms of allowing South Africa to play an integral part in the global CSP supply value chain and to create niche solar energy technology application markets.
Muofhe tells Engineering News that the 100 kW facility and its innovative technology has attracted overseas interest and that the DST will continue to support the Helio 100 project towards full commercialisation in the upcoming months as far as the mandate allows.
Muofhe says that the DST works in partnership with key stakeholders in order to take solar innovation and research outputs to commercialisation.
A typical example is the DST’s partnership with the South African Weather Service, which is integral to researching solar radiation projections and weather conditions.
He says the DST is developing a colour- coded solar irradiation atlas that illustrates locations throughout South Africa where solar energy can be optimally harnessed.
“The interesting thing about this map is that, according to preliminary versions of the atlas, the worst places in South Africa to harness solar energy are exceptionally better than the best locations in Europe,” says Muofhe.
This affirms the indication that Africa is in a particularly good position to harvest and use solar energy, he notes.
“The sun is one of the most abundant renewable-energy sources we have, bearing in mind the few days of overcast weather we have a year. Therefore, it is important that we develop technologies that will assist in exploiting the full potential of solar energy for the country and the continent,” adds Muofhe.
He adds that the research into solar energy harvesting must be complemented by exploring solar storage solutions to ensure that, even when the sun is not shining, there are no energy supply interruptions.
“The department is supporting the development of safer and more environment friendly battery and thermal storage solutions and investing in clean energy solutions that can be hybridised with solar technologies,” he adds.
Muofhe also notes that the DST values private-sector partnerships, as the co-investment of financial resources and expertise makes it possible to shorten technology development and timelines and broaden the scope of research.
He believes that the private sector also enables the department to strengthen its own processes and add valuable experience with regard to technology commercialisation.
Uptake on Solar Solutions
In the context of continuing hikes in the price of electricity from conventional sources, solar solutions, especially for lighting and water heating, are becoming more affordable.
This means that solar energy use can be expected to increase across different energy-consuming segments of society.
Muofhe explains that, within a period as short as two years, the savings on electricity costs will have covered the capital expended on the solar device, and will begin to prove the true value of the technology.
He highlights the value of solar energy decision-support tools like the solar atlas, which will help to guide the selection of prime locations for building solar energy plants worth billions of rands. These plants will be part of government’s Renewable Energy Independent Power Producer Procurement Programme, which is intended to increase clean energy technology solutions into South Africa’s national energy mix.