The sunny semi-desert of South Africa is entering a fascinating new energy epoch. And it all started on a Karoo farm in the middle of nowhere.
Words: Julienne du Toit
Pictures: Chris Marais and Supplied
South Africa’s new era of solar power started with a stranger knocking on a Karoo farmhouse door in the early summer of 2010. Enid and Kurt Krog of the farm Kalkbult, just north of the Northern Cape town of De Aar, hospitably invited him in. Over coffee and Enid’s home-made koeksisters on the farmhouse stoep, the man revealed the purpose of his visit.
He was from a Norwegian energy outfit called Scatec Solar, and the company was interested in leasing 105 hectares of their 10 000 hectare farm. They wanted to set up solar panels on this piece of land, close to the road, the railway line and its overhead power cables.
Kurt quickly ran the figures in his head. On 105 hectares he could only graze (intermittently) a maximum of 60 sheep. What this mystery man was offering was way more than he could ever make out of mutton, wool or the sale of lambs. This part of the world, north of De Aar, is not easy land to farm. The climate is unforgiving and dry. “People in the cities don’t know how it feels when it doesn’t rain and your windpump starts pumping air,” explained Kurt.
Still, it all sounded like a bit of a hoax. After Kurt and Enid waved the Scatec man goodbye, they privately agreed that he’d probably never be back. It seemed a hare-brained scheme, like one of those pesky, million-dollar lottery-prize emails we all get from time to time. They hadn’t even asked for his telephone number.
To the Krogs’ very great surprise, the man and his company did return, and Kalkbult became the site of South Africa’s first solar farm. Construction on the 75-megawatt solar farm began in 2012 and was connected to the regional grid 10 months later, a full 90 days ahead of schedule. That’s the joy of a South Africa-based solar farm. Unlike various fossil-fuel power stations we have all come to know and loathe, unlike your classic nuclear power station, you can quickly – and under budget.
Part of what had bemused the Krogs was why their farm had been chosen. It turned out that Kalkbult had a confluence of solar energy assets. It bordered on an under-utilised 132kV power line, built to power electric locomotives, and there was an electrical substation on the property, built decades ago.
The farm also fell within what is now known as the Northern Cape Solar Corridor, which is simultaneously rich in sunny days, big spaces and power lines. Other pluses were that the farm had a general north-facing aspect, a designated road crossing the railway line, and flat ground in the most convenient place – close to the substation, road and power line.
Over the years, Kurt had learnt to farm with very few labourers. The sheer size of the property plus his sense of adventure had pushed him towards farming using a motorised paraglider. On fine days, he’d take off and fly over the land, checking on the sheep, the water points and the fences.
Then he became fascinated with the construction of the solar plant. From start to finish, he took aerial images with a GoPro camera attached to his helmet. They proved to be invaluable. The wide-angle shots (mostly including Kurt’s knees) made their way across the world – and, of course, to Norway. At the launch of the Kalkbult solar plant in November 2013, the Norwegian ambassador confided that Kurt must have some of the most famous knees in the world.
Enid and Kurt found it hard to find any negatives to having a solar plant on their property. “Apart from the three months of the trucks with components that were oming and there was all that dust, it’s been a pleasure.”
The Krogs are paid rental for the land based on a percentage of the income received for every sunny kilowatt generated from their property. If Kurt goes away, Enid feels safer knowing there are security people on the alert guarding the solar panels and, by extension, part of their property near the farmhouse, 24 hours a day. They can even graze their sheep every now and then on the bossies and grass that are thriving between the long lines of solar panels.
“It’s been interesting to watch the veld,” said Kurt. “The grasses seem to do better in the full sun, but the bossies do well in shadier parts. I let in about 50 sheep for a few weeks to let them graze the vegetation down a bit. They seem to have loved it. There are water points within the fenced area for steenbok, rabbits, tortoises, porcupines and other small, wild animals. In fact they loved it so much that five sheep decided to stay. I couldn’t get them out for weeks.”
But the one downside is that, despite having an electrical power plant on their property, the Krogs still suffer from load shedding just like everyone else. And for those occasions, Kurt swings the lever on the 1939 Lister engine in the garage, so at least they have lights and television for the duration. Sometimes old tech still rescues new tech.
Kalkbult Facts & Figures
- All 312 000 solar panels (modules) are precisely angled at 30° to the sun.
- On a sunny day, Kalkbult generates enough power for 35 000 households.
- The solar photovoltaic panels are connected by 1 800km of cabling to inverters, transformers and the new
high-voltage substation (the old one proved inadequate for the task).
- The entire structure weighs 400 tons.
- At the peak of construction, 600 jobs were created, with a high percentage for the local community.
- Kalkbult plant now has 11 permanent staff.
- The Kalkbult operation sets aside one per cent of revenue received over the next 20 years towards socio-economic development projects benefitting communities in a 50km radius of the project site. These include early childhood development programmes (upgrading ECD centres and providing educational toys and equipment); My Healthy Child Programme that raises awareness about foetal alcohol spectrum disorder; sports like netball and soccer through the Dreamfields Project; and the Field Band Foundation with classes held for youths aged 7-21 in Philipstown and Petrusville.
Renewable Energy in South Africa
- South Africa’s renewable energy sector – which really began in 2011 – is seen as a global leader.
- South Africa has an average of 2 500 hours of sunshine a year, putting it among the top countries in the world when it comes to solar energy potential.
- The Department of Energy calculates that renewable energy could create 462 000 jobs in South Africa by 2030, and has already created 25 000 jobs.
- South Africa’s Integrated Resource Plan has a target of 17 800 MW from renewable energy by 2030.
- Renewable energy has attracted investment of R192.6bn, of which 28 per cent (R53.2bn) is foreign investment – equal to 85.8 per cent of all foreign direct investment in SA in 2014.
- A study by the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research in late 2015 found that solar and wind energy had generated R4 billion in financial benefits for South Africa within a period of six months.
- In 2015, Stellenbosch University’s Centre for Renewable and Sustainable Energy Studies found that solar and wind power had already reduced the duration and frequency of load shedding.
- South Africa’s Department of Energy has committed to 13 225 MW of renewable energy generation by 2025. By the middle of 2015, more than 6 000MW had been procured from 92 independent producers, with 37 having started commercial operations, which added 1 860MW to the grid.
- Communities within a 50km radius of renewable energy projects in South Africa have been substantial beneficiaries already, with a shareholding of 10.5 per cent in renewable projects. They are projected to receive a net income of R29.1bn over 20 years, or R1.46bn a year.
Information sourced from the South African National Energy Development Institute.