A leading light of solar energy

The Nelson Mandela -Metropolitan University is using renewable energy to conduct cutting-edge energy research in a project that could offer solutions to South Africa’s energy challenge.

The outdoor research facility at the university’s Centre for Energy Research is entirely powered by solar energy.

The facility’s newly installed 3kW grid-connected photovoltaic (solar) power generation system and its existing 1.6kW system, set up three years ago as part of South Africa’s first official grid-tie pilot project, produces more electricity than the facility consumes and the overflow is fed into the university’s main electricity grid.

The centre’s director, Professor Ernest van Dyk, said the two systems provided enough energy to operate a normal house.

Former student Kevin Minkoff, who is now a project manager at Innowind in Port Elizabeth, set up the grid-tie pilot project as part of his 2008 master’s research in collaboration with Nelson Mandela Bay Municipality and local companies.

Becoming a power producer
“By giving private individuals microlicences for renewable electricity generation, everyone can become a power producer,” he said. “It diversifies the risk of having a single entity control the entire power-generation market and creates awareness [about renewable energy] within the population.”

Said Van Dyk: “The 3kW system costs about R60 000 but would provide electricity for more than 25 years, generating more than R150 000 worth at today’s domestic electricity price.”
With the 3kW and 1.6kW systems working together, 25 kilowatt hours are generated a day, but the facility uses only 50% and feeds the remaining 50% into the university grid.

The university has also had some success with solar home systems in the rural area of Tyefu near Peddie and in Port Elizabeth’s New Brighton areas, where solar energy provides for the basic electricity needs of small rural and township homes. 

The project also formed part of the master’s research studies of former student Nathan Williams, now employed at EAB-Astrum Energy (EA Energy) in Durban. Williams had spent two years as a Peace Corps volunteer teaching maths and science in a remote village in Burkina Faso where there was no electricity infrastructure, and had built himself a small solar home system for lighting, running his shortwave radio and charging his cellphone.

In another groundbreaking innovation, lecturers travel between the university’s north and south campuses on solar-powered bicycles and scooters. Ten staff members have been using them in a pilot project called Freewheeling. Their old transport remains under a covered parking facility that will host the solar panels, which in turn will feed solar energy directly into the university’s electricity grid. The new bicycles and scooters go up to 30km/h with no peddling required.

Being responsible
“We need to focus on sustainable solutions and instil in our students a responsibility towards the natural environment,” said the university’s director of projects and planning, Greg Ducie, who initiated the project with Van Dyk.

The photovoltaic modules (solar panels) and inverter for the Freewheeling project were provided by Innowind. The company, which primarily develops large-scale wind projects, started investigating small- and large-scale photovoltaic (solar cell) projects a year ago, ahead of government incentives.

Innowind purchased a batch of thin-film panels, a new product from German company Masdar PV, and has installed 2.7kW clusters of these panels in several different locations in South Africa, the university being one of them. 

Said Minkoff: “Our motivation was threefold. We wanted to allow research institutions like the university to have first-hand experience of photovoltaic systems in order to start training the PV technicians, engineers and researchers of tomorrow.

“We also wanted to get first-hand production data on a new product in South Africa as our weather conditions differ from Europe’s and we wanted to create a grid-tie live project that exemplifies the concept of “feeding in” to the grid, or in this case, to the university network. It is important that decision-makers become comfortable with the concept and see its benefits.”

Among other projects being researched at the centre is the development of various types of concentrator photovoltaic technologies that could potentially generate cheaper electricity than normal “flat-plate” photovoltaics. It includes high-concentration photovoltaics, in which sunlight is concentrated on to small solar cells. The centre has built an academic prototype in which 24% of the energy concentrated on the smaller cells is converted to electricity, compared with 15% for normal flat-plate PV modules.

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Nicky Willemse
Nicky Willemse works from Port Elizabeth, South Africa. Freelance journalist, copywriter, proofreader, editor, booklover, parent Nicky Willemse has over 43 followers on Twitter.

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