Solar value flares as cost per kilowatt drops

7 Apr, 2015
Magnus Coetzee, MD of XON’s Alternative Energy division

Alternative energies, particularly solar photovoltaic solutions, are seeing widespread deployment throughout Africa. These solutions are being used to feed grids and feed isolated systems, which are located far from urban centres, built up infrastructure and where the grid is unstable or not available.

One example is cellphone towers, many of which are located far from urban centres. Infrastructure like cellphone towers in remote locations in many African countries typically run off diesel generators, which is extremely expensive due to the cost of fuel, maintenance, and the cost to send personnel on long and difficult journeys where roads are poor to service and refuel these sites.

Existing and new solutions being deployed across Africa consist of a container, much like a shipping container or insulated housing, fitted with batteries, inverters, solar panels, and sophisticated monitoring equipment that allow companies to power remote systems. These plug and play solar solutions are designed for specific purposes and configured before they even arrive on site. The model ensures for local employment because employees with minimal training or skills in these areas can install the power solutions comfortably. All containerised solar solutions are configured at the manufacturer’s site and once installed, can be monitored remotely from a central office or NOC anywhere in the world. Systems are monitored for performance, faults, preventative maintenance and security – allowing or denying access to verified personnel as required.

In many cases, such as for cellphone towers, diesel generators can be retained for backup power supply, even though the solar containers consist of redundant, compartmentalised banks of batteries that effectively offer failover power or mains power during the evenings or bad weather. The cost to retain the diesel generators is therefore vastly reduced. They may run for as little as an hour per week, purely for maintenance purposes, instead of 24 hours per day. The fuel bill is therefore reduced drastically with maintenance of the generator motors cut back enormously. Life expectancy of generators between major overhauls is extended to many years instead of months. And, once again, maintenance vehicles and crews need not visit remote sites nearly so often.

When it comes to solar solutions feeding the grid many African countries outside of South Africa are extremely keen but have hit a stumbling block in terms of the legislation necessary to guide these installations and operations. It has pushed deployment dates back as they develop their own legislation and regulation around these projects yet they remain undeterred and are developing their models. They definitely see the value in solar solutions, particularly as prices per kilowatt-hour have dropped to below 19 US cents.

The drop in price per kilowatt hour has been made possible in part by additional manufacturing facilities around the world and also in South Africa and the uptake of these solutions driving sales volumes of panels, batteries and additional equipment, on a global basis.

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