Young engineer Nolwazi Zulu says that when she was a teenager she decided that she would “go out and do something” about the regular power cuts that bedevil her community.
Now 25 years old, Ms Zulu is from rural Kwazulu-Natal on the eastern coast of South Africa.
Like the rest of the country her home province has had to endure frequent blackouts, called “load-shedding”, since 2008.
This has been caused by South Africa’s aging, state-owned power grid, and its mainly coal-fuelled power stations, struggling to keep up with demand.
To try to help solve the problem, and boost its environmental credentials, the South African government is now continuing with efforts to boost the amount of solar-power generation in the country. To do this it is encouraging firms in the sector to tender for contracts.
It currently wants to secure an additional 1,000 megawatts from solar power, enough to provide electricity for approximately one million homes in the country. This is in addition to a desire to boost onshore wind power generation by 1,600 megawatts.
Currently only 11% of South Africa’s power comes from renewables, and mostly wind. Just 0.9% so far comes from solar, in a country that gets an average eight to 10 hours of sun every day, compared with the UK’s four.
One firm that has won one of the solar bids is Art Solar, the only South African-owned solar panel manufacturer. The word Art stands for “African Renewable Technology”.
It is at this company that Ms Zulu works in the design team as she continues to study for a diploma in electrical power engineering at the Durban University of Technology.
In addition to helping the national power grid, she says that solar panels can bring power to the many rural homes that aren’t connected to the mains.
“I want to open an Art Solar branch in Ulundi [where she grew up], and bring solar to my village,” says Ms Zulu. “It is cheaper and better than how we are living through load-shedding, and will change so many lives.”
Durban-based Art Solar started 12 years ago, building solar panels under licence from German firm Bosch. It now manufacturers panels in partnership with fellow German company Talesun for both the South African and international markets.
General manager Viren Gosai says that the government’s solar push has given the company the confidence to open a new facility that is capable of producing 650,000 panels per year.
It also supplies private homes and businesses, despite its panels being more expensive than lower-quality imports that don’t face any import tariffs.
“Covid-19 and lockdowns were bad in many ways,” says Mr Gosai. “But the one positive I noticed is that it made people patriotic.
“People want to buy local, rely on the resources at home, and are loyal.”
New Tech Economy is a series exploring how technological innovation is set to shape the new emerging economic landscape.
One high-profile recent contract for Art Solar was providing the solar panels last year for a private hospital in Durban. It means that the Ahmed Al-Kadi Hospital is protected from the risk of power cuts.
Up in East African countries including Tanzania, fellow solar energy firm Zola Electric has a solution to power supply that ignores national grids. Instead of connecting solar panel farms to nationwide power systems, it wants to create independent “mini-grids” for villages and other communities.
Zola’s chief executive Bill Lenihan says we need to “move beyond legacy ways of thinking about energy access, especially in Africa”.
He adds that in emerging markets, alongside moving from fossil fuels to renewables, people are thinking that having a single energy grid may not work.
“Everyone in their minds was saying: ‘We’re going to build a grid.’ Well you are not building grids.
“One hundred years later in places like Africa people don’t have access to working grids, and they are not going to get working grids, because it is a flawed technology for emerging markets. This isn’t controversial to say this any more.”
Back in South Africa, Jay Naidoo, a former government minister under Nelson Mandela, is a fan of the idea of such separate mini-grids for the 20% of South African households not connected to the grid of state energy firm Eskom.
Today he is a trustee and resident of the Earthrise Trust, an eco-farming project in rural Free State province.
“Our aim is to empower rural communities, particularly women and the youth contributing to economic growth,” says Mr Naidoo. “Power though is still an issue, halting the prospects and self-sufficient nature of the farm.
“Imagine if we could have a community-owned, micro-solar grid and meet our own needs? It could electrify so many communities and create community-owned assets.”
South African environmental campaigning organisation Earthlife Africa has been calling for more renewable power in the country for some time.
“We’ve missed out on investing in solar,” says Earthlife director Makoma Lekalakala. “We would be beyond the [power cuts] crisis if we had.”
“Instead we have leaned into the narrative that we have coal, and coal is the baseline.”
South Africa should have moved towards solar “long ago”, she says, adding: “We have wasted a lot of time and disregarded the climate commitments we made in international spaces.”
South Africa’s Department of Mining Resources and Energy did not respond to a request for a comment.
As Art Solar plans a big increase in production, Ms Zulu says she is thrilled that the company is indeed now planning to open a branch in her local community.
Meanwhile, Mr Gosai says he is confident for the future of solar power in the country. “The light is amazing in South Africa, a lot of daylight hours means a high return on investment. [And] our people back us.”
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