The biggest solar farm in South Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa is Solar Capital’s De Aar project in the Northern Cape.
This photovoltaic (PV) solar facility provides a maximum potential generating capacity of 175MW.
Its project site covers 473 hectares of a 2,674-hectare farm and comprises over half a million modules that convert sunlight into electricity.
According to Solar Capital, the plant produces enough electricity to power approximately 75,000 homes every year.
It was constructed in two phases, with the first being completed in August 2014. That initial phase provided 85.26MW of generating capacity.
A second phase was completed less than two years later, providing a further 90MW of power. Overall, the project cost R4.8 billion and took 28 months to complete.
At the peak of its construction, the project created 2,000 jobs. During operation, the farm supports 100 permanent jobs.
When it was completed, Solar Capital’s De Aar solar farm was the biggest by capacity in the Southern Hemisphere.
Since then, it has been surpassed by the Bungala Solar Power Project in Australia, which provides 220MW of capacity.
But Solar Capital plans to expand the De Aar farm further in phases, providing up to 300MW of additional generating capacity.
The plant’s manager previously told CNN it could produce far more energy, which is why Solar Capital plans to add lithium-ion batteries soon to store excess energy that it can dispatch to the grid during the night.
Most of South Africa’s solar plants only generate between 75-100MW of electricity, meaning they have much lower capacity than coal-fired power plants, the latest of which offer between 700MW and 800MW per unit.
However, they do not emit the harmful emissions that have become a scourge to health and the environment in the areas where coal-fired power stations are located, such as Emalahleni in Mpumalanga.
With abundant sunshine in most parts of the country throughout the year, solar power will play a key role in South Africa’s transition to cleaner electricity generation.
Eskom currently has access to more than 2,700MW of solar capacity from private power producers that feed electricity into the national grid.
500MW of this comes from concentrated solar power (CSP), while PV farms provide another 2,212MW.
CSP plants are expensive to build but come with molten salt storage that can hold energy like a battery for dispatching at night.
Eskom also buys electricity from private wind farms, which currently feed a maximum of just over 3,000MW into the grid.
The utility’s reliance on these renewable energy sources is set to grow in the coming years — if the government sticks to its Integrated Resource Plan 2019.
The plan envisions that wind will account for 22.53% of the country’s energy mix while PV solar will provide 10.52%.
The government recently also announced its list of preferred bidders for the 5th Bid Window of the Renewable Energy Independent Power Producers Procurement (REIPPP) Programme.
In this bid window, a combination of onshore wind projects and PV solar farms will provide an additional 2,583MW of maximum capacity to South Africa’s battered grid.
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