South Africa has been a little slow to begin developing its potential for solar power generation, but solar power is now beginning to increase in importance in this country's economy and electricity supply strategy. One of the major inhibiting factors was the high initial cost of setting up a solar power system. However, as the technology has improved and become cheaper, and as the supply of fossil fuel-based electricity has begun to fail to meet demand, leading to both power outages and sharp increases in electricity rates, solar power is fast gaining in popularity, and there are now several suppliers of the technology here.
In the last decade a team of South African scientists, led by Professor Vivian Alberts from the University of Johannesburg, developed a revolutionary new technology known as Thin Film Solar Technology (TFST), which uses a metal alloy and is cheaper, thinner and more efficient than the standard silicone technology used. Although it is not yet as widely available as the silicone solar panels in South Africa, it is being produced in bulk in Germany, and will soon become cheaper and easier to get in this country. New regulations are now coming into place stipulating that most new buildings should incorporate solar water heating, and should be as energy efficient as possible and reduce their dependence on non-renewable energy, and this will encourage the spread of solar power in the country.
There has been much controversy over the renewable energy policies of the national electricity provider, Eskom. The parastatal has recently taken the controversial decision to decrease feed-in tariffs (the money that is paid to electricity producers who supply electricity to the grid from renewable sources) which means that there will be less incentive for people to produce electricity for the grid. However, it will also mean that energy from renewable sources will be cheaper, and since the price of fossil fuel-based electricity is increasing dramatically in South Africa, renewable energy may be cheaper than non-renewable within the next few years.
South Africa has an extremely high potential for solar power generation, since the majority of the country receives large amounts of sunshine all year round as depicted in the map to the left. Individual buildings, incorporating the latest technology, could supply the majority of their energy requirements through solar panels and solar water heaters mounted on their roofs and walls, and some may even be able to produce surplus electricity at times, which could be sold back to the grid. South Africa also has many suitable large open areas where concentrating solar power plants (huge arrays of solar panels) could be built to generate electricity for the grid. According to a research paper from the University of Stellenbosch, South Africa has the potential to produce almost 550GW of electricity through such plants, which could be located in specific parts of the Northern, Eastern and Western Cape and the Free State. The location of such plants depends on many factors, including the amount of sunshine received, the conservation status of the local vegetation, current land-use, topography (slope), water supply and the proximity of transmission lines. At this stage, the government has announced plans to build one huge plant in the Northern Cape – it will be the biggest one in the world – which will produce 5GW, a tenth of the country's requirements.
The benefits of using solar power are clear. Once the initial costs of setting up a solar power system have been defrayed, households and businesses using solar power will save significant amounts of money by not buying electricity from the grid, and may even be able to make some money by selling any surplus back to the grid. Using solar power also reduces the user's carbon footprint by reducing the amount of fossil fuel that needs to be combusted in order to satisfy their energy needs. Furthermore, it reduces the user's dependence on electricity from the grid, which is set to become less and less reliable and more expensive as the demand for electricity in South Africa increases, and global fossil fuel prices also climb as the supply of fossil fuel dwindles.
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