• Citizen power

    Forward-thinking solutions have led to ingenious ways of harnessing solar energy taking it beyond the rooftop and, in some cases, into people’s pockets – literally.

    Citizen power

    The world economy needs escalating amounts of energy to sustain economic growth, improve living standards and reduce poverty. However, around 1.1 billion people have no access to electricity, according to the World Bank – and many of them earn less than US$2 per day, even though they spend up to US$15 per month on energy. The good news is that numerous organisations, individuals and firms are working tirelessly to find sustainable, affordable solutions to the world’s energy crisis.

    ‘As with anything, innovation brings new or improved ideas, processes and technologies that enable us to harness and utilise our resources more efficiently and effectively,’ says Dinesh Buldoo, transmission and distribution projects director at WSP Parsons Brinckerhoff Africa. ‘The same can be said with innovation in solar energy, where every improvement in the technology – as well as the introduction of other technology types – enables us to harness and produce more power from sunlight.’

    In South Africa, solar power has predominantly been rolled out under the Renewable Energy Independent Power Producer Procurement programme.

    ‘This can be viewed as innovative in its own right since it provides grid support in an environmentally friendly manner while promoting foreign investment, growth and development,’ says Buldoo. He argues that advancements in the harnessing of solar energy lie in the development of low-cost solar cells with increased efficiencies, and says innovative solar technologies can be found in both concentrated photovoltaic (CPV) systems and concentrated solar power (CSP) systems.

    ‘These examples of innovation will continue to grow access to power in Africa, where many communities on the continent reside in areas still underdeveloped, remote and with minimal access to power,’ he says.

    It’s widely acknowledged that CSP will be key to making solar power a viable energy source in coming years. In fact, a team of researchers at Stellenbosch University, led by Paul Gauché, founding director of the university’s Solar Thermal Energy Research Group (STERG), has developed the Helio100 – a ‘plug-and-play’ solar solution that is at the forefront of such innovation.

    Based on a CSP system, the idea behind the design of the Helio100 is simple: a field of shaped mirrors (‘heliostats’) positioned on the ground track the sun and concentrate its rays onto a central point, which in turn heats up. This heat is then converted into electricity.

    While existing examples of such solar plants are already in use worldwide, they’re typically large and expensive. What the STERG team has achieved by scaling down such technology and reducing production costs is therefore quite a feat. When asked what makes this solution a good one, Sebastian-James Bode, a research engineer on the project, attributes it to a combination of its affordability, ease of use and scalability.

    The team started by addressing the cost factor, identifying the most expensive components and looking at solutions to minimise them. In this instance, that meant the heliostats themselves. The unique design of the system uses smaller, smarter and modular heliostats to overcome the cost challenges.

    ‘From a development side, all of Africa has caught most of the global players off guard in terms of our large-scale, off-grid solutions’

    According to Bode, the entire system is ‘plonkable’ – meaning it simply ‘plonks’ onto the ground and does not require heavy machinery or excessive physical labour to set it up. ‘It’s completely wireless, and each mirror is independently powered by its own mini solar power system. It’s also small, as one heliostat pod literally fits on the back of a bakkie.’

    The Helio100 has a very clever, built-in control system that tracks the sun, meaning that regardless of where the apparatus is set up, it will figure out on its own where in the world it is, and direct the sunlight onto its towers. The technology is also easily scalable, thanks to its modular systems. ‘A single tower is one unit,’ says Bode, so if you want a bigger system, simply add on more units.

    The project has received what he calls a ‘fantastic’ response from government as well as other stakeholders and interested parties – some of them international and quite high profile. As it is still in the trial phase, the Helio100 needs another step or two to successfully take it to a commercial level, though Bode believes this is not far off.

    ‘The beautiful thing about CSP is that it generates heat, and heat is easily stored. That is one of the biggest value propositions of the technology because you can run the plant and store energy outside of sunlight hours.’ Bode adds that this sets CSP apart from most renewables, which only operate when the sun is up or the wind is blowing.

    Africa receives more hours of sunshine than any other continent. The International Energy Agency, in its 2014 Africa Energy Outlook report, regards sub-Saharan Africa as ‘rich in energy resources but very poor in energy supply’, highlighting that just 290 million of the region’s 915 million people have access to electricity.

    There is clearly a great need for accessible, reliable and inexpensive energy – and renewable energy seems an ideal solution to this. Indeed, the report predicts that by 2040, almost half of the growth in electricity generation in sub-Saharan Africa will be coming from renewables.

    Solar expert and entrepreneur John Anderson is the founder and CEO of World Panel, a triple bottom-line company (people, planet, profit) focused on energy poverty eradication. Anderson originally travelled across Africa with a solar prototype for household purposes but was repeatedly asked by locals if it could charge their phones. He says that for many people in Africa, ‘their only electrical device is a mobile phone. They don’t need huge grids, just mobile electricity’.

    One solution, which Anderson says took him two years to develop, is the SunStream, a device that directly connects mobile phones to clean and reliable energy streamed from the sun – something never before done.

    ‘All solar chargers need to have a battery you charge, and that plugs into your device. So you have to charge a device to charge your device,’ he says.

    ‘This technology streams electricity directly from the sun into the device.’ What it has essentially done is leapfrog the legacy of central distribution, which ‘creates a new paradigm and a stimulus for innovation’.

    Anderson describes the response to the technology as ‘explosive’. Retailing for around ZAR199, the device is certainly affordable. It is durable too, water-submersible and drop-tested up to 2m. The SunStream has a shatter-proof glass face and polymer case that is UV-stable and remains cool to the touch, even in extreme heat. In other words, it’s ideally suited to Africa’s climate, populace and needs.

    James Shirley, business leader at Schneider Electric and chairman of the Sustainable Energy Society of Southern Africa, believes much is being done to encourage innovation.

    ‘Some incubators out there are doing incredible work – and not just in the field of renewable energy,’ he says, adding that we are doing much better than anticipated. ‘From a development side, all of Africa has caught most of the global players off guard in terms of our large-scale, off-grid solutions.’

    Schneider Electric has developed a range of solutions that can work independently as electrical devices or, when combined, provide co-ordinated power solutions for entire communities. They include a portable solar LED-lighting system, a solar home-lighting system, a solar station to charge up to 10 batteries simultaneously, solar street lights and a solar water-pumping solution that works for both domestic use and irrigation purposes. The company also creates container-based solar solutions, including modular, solar-powered schools and clinics that are powered entirely by solar energy.

    The efficiency of solar modules has increased – and with it, the efficiency of what can be commercially produced, says Shirley. He does, however, add that there is room for improvement in terms of storage.

    ‘This is the next big step for renewable energy. It means we can decentralise the grid, and produce and store in different areas. We will no longer have to build and maintain huge transmission networks.’

    According to Shirley, the recent release of various batteries, such as Tesla’s, have effectively made the technology slick and fashionable, while addressing the need for large-scale storage. ‘The whole concept of storage – and the hype that this has brought to the market – is excellent.

    ‘It has pushed to the forefront that storage is okay, that it is affordable and the right way to go.’ But he adds that while greater political will and proper legislation is needed to encourage further growth (from a technology perspective) and ensure the sector’s longevity, ‘these currently don’t exist in South Africa’.

    Anderson firmly believes that technology is the only thing truly capable of changing the future.

    ‘Taking a technology and expanding it is what I call globalisation. Facebook is already there but it doesn’t change the future, it just globalises it,’ he says. ‘What the future holds is limitless as far as the applications of solar technology are concerned.’

    By Toni Muir
    Image: G
    allo/ Gettyimages