Successful solar wheeling project launches a new era for South African electricity provision

A first-of-its-kind 10 MW solar plant in the Northern Cape has reached commercial operation three months ahead of schedule, providing clean energy to Amazon Web Services via the Eskom grid in a new model of private energy procurement called energy wheeling. The project, developed by the SOLA Group, will provide over 28 million kWh of clean electricity annually.

“This is the first operational large-scale solar PV wheeling project in South Africa, and the model is futuristic: it uses Eskom’s grid to connect private buyers and sellers together making the way for more choice and competition.  It’s the first step forward in creating grid independence where private buyers and sellers of energy can trade with each other,” says Dom Wills, CEO of the SOLA Group.

Wheeling is a financial transaction that allows power to be produced in one location and billed to an energy user in another region. The plant will provide a low-carbon alternative to coal-fired power without needing to be geographically located at the site of use. This model could also help South Africa significantly in sticking to its carbon emission reductions targets, which are at the forefront of discussion ahead of the COP26 climate change in Glasgow next week.

The launch of the solar plant symbolises the positive stance taken recently by the Department of Minerals and Energy, NERSA and Eskom towards renewable energy generation, which has great potential to solve South Africa’s energy crisis and reduce electricity costs. Power generated from wheeling projects will increase the amount of IPPs and relieve the sole electricity provision burden on Eskom.

Local economic development

In addition to lowering their carbon impact, Amazon Web Services’ efforts to procure renewable power also show their commitment to creating economic impact in South Africa. The project is more than 63% black owned, with investor Mahlako a Phahla Investments holding stakes in the project.

“This is a significant positioning for our Fund, which is black-women owned and operated, showcasing our commitment to growing our portfolio to bring about desired returns for our investors, and our confidence in the renewable energy space as a viable and attractive sector for local investors,” said Makole Mupita, Director at Mahlako a Phahla Investments.

The SOLA Group is a fully South African-owned company which has been developing, constructing and operating Solar PV projects since the first round of REIPPP, the government’s renewable energy procurement programme. SOLA Group is 100% South African owned, including a 40% shareholding by black investor African Rainbow Energy and Power.

“It’s immensely important that while we’re rebuilding energy generation in South Africa that we’re also developing South African companies and skills,” adds Wills. “SOLA has always been committed to transforming South Africa through clean energy, and this project marks a step change in scale.”

During construction, the plant created 167 jobs, 63% of them from the local surrounding area, and it will sustain permanent jobs for its lifetime in electrical maintenance, cleaning and security. Wooden waste generated during construction, including pallets and electrical cable drums, were donated to local furniture businesses and special skills schools, in order to further bolster the SMME contributions of the project.

An engineering triumph

Technologically, the plant represents the cutting-edge in renewable energy design. The single axis tracking plant consists of over 24 000 bifacial solar modules covering an area of 20 hectares in the Northern Cape, where the solar resource is one of the best in the world.

The solar PV facility tracks the sun throughout the day and absorbs irradiance from both the sky and reflected light from the ground, making it more efficient. The plant design will see over 25 000 tons of carbon emissions being avoided annually – the equivalent of taking 5400 cars off of the road for a year.

“The successful launch of this project not only demonstrates the viability of a modernised grid with renewable energy at its core,” concludes Wills, “it shows the willingness of the government and the private sector to work together on solving South Africa’s electricity crisis.”

For more information, visit www.solagroup.co.za.

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