This Power Plant was the winner of the IJ Global Award (http://www.ijglobalawards.com) in 2016 for African Renewable Project.
Earlier this year I made a public proclamation on my main website that I was about to focus a lion's share of my personal consultancy time to the technology surrounding renewable and sustainable energies and resources, with a specific interest on projects in Africa.
This will be my second article related to this subject, but my first official site visit to a worthy operational project.
The topic of renewable and sustainable energy technology was an interest of mine that I was least familiar with, mainly because there are a lot of technical, mathematical and scientific elements involved and I never did any formal studies in these fields after high school. With that said, I appear to be learning very quickly about the technology involved with energy generation, and feel more than confident to tackle this article.
After reading a review online about the Kathu Solar Power Park, I put fingers to keypad and sent an email to the address I found on their website. I received a very prompt response from Cedric Faye, the CEO of the Power Plant. This immediate response time impressed me, after all, when do you get a reply from a CEO through a general email request?
My experiences, unfortunately, to date for interviews or visits are ignored, or, I am passed from person to person like an unwanted office chair. Even as I write this article, I am struggling to get a response from SKA SA (Square Kilometre Array radio telescope) which I really need to visit. (I will win them over with my persistence.)
The manner of response I received from Kathu Solar Power Park is proof of this establishment’s interest in sharing their work with the public and this needs to be commended from the get-go.
So, WELL DONE!
I set up the appointment and paid them a visit on Saturday the 4th of May. It was a good seven-hour drive from Johannesburg, and I only stopped to get coffee and take a selfie with a cow on the side of the road.
As I drove into the small town of Kathu, I passed some major road works and several Remax signs, who if I am to believe the person I spoke too, is a company that has a monopoly in the area and the price of rentals are rather high. There were a few shopping malls, guesthouses and some small businesses scattered around.
I found my hotel off an industrial road. I would be staying at The Urban Hotel, which regrettably was going through renovations at the time, but that inconvenience was totally forgotten by the friendliness of the staff. Honestly, such nice people!
I enjoyed a dinner at the Albatross restaurant that evening where the food was yummy but the waitress was rather disappointing. I am an advocate for good business, so poor service is something I find disheartening. Regardless, we had a good meal, and I was extremely entertained by the cats all over the place, including a kitten.
I had an early night, knowing well I had to get to the plant first thing in the morning and still needed to shoot a short video before that.
My cameraman and I started the shoot on the dusty road leading to the park. I was surprised that the Power Plant did not have a tarred road. On arrival we received a very warm welcome from David, an engineer on the Power Plant assigned to give us the tour. I kept calling David the incorrect name by mistake, it was so embarrassing. I really am sorry Nick.
David gave a great introductory presentation in a boardroom housed in a prefab building, with a sign outside saying it belonged to the Owner.
Some of what he discussed during the presentation was information I was already aware of, thanks to Cedric who had forwarded a briefing pack prior to our arrival. I also did some research of my own.
After the talk, David made coffee and we stood outside for a while and chatted more casually. It was very warm for a mid-winter’s morning, and once you looked past the dusty parking lot and buildings there were only small trees and shrubs for as far as the eye could see.
One story I cannot help but giggle about, which was shared by David, was that there have been solar parks with the live animals needing to be removed every day for fear of them igniting from the sun reflectors.. I know it’s distasteful to laugh about these poor animals suffering, but can you imagine a poor sheep trying to nibble on some grass and then suddenly igniting?
I did try to research some cases of this story, and while I could not find any instance of such tragedies, I did find evidence that animals were kept on Solar Plants to help keep the grass trimmed. I was assured by David such things did not happen on his Power Plant. I was happy to believe him because there was no way any animals would get past the security at the front gate who do an excellent job. Also, the entire complex was surrounded by high fencing.
Kathu Solar Power Park is not absent of animals, you will find snakes, scorpions and spiders. Apparently, when found, they are moved safely to the fields nearby.
David gave us a safety helmet, vest and shoes - a pair of boots one size too big. We then set off in his car, which was just as dusty inside as it was outside.
I want to make a point that this visit was not my first to a power station, and I have seen other Solar Plants before. There was this one power station I saw on a self-drive on my way to San Francisco last year in a Mustang. (Yes I know, that is not a very green car). I remember driving past a very strange looking tower which appeared to be something out of a Star Wars movie and it was under attack by laser beams. What I was in fact seeing were solar reflectors projecting light onto a tall building in the middle which absorbed the heat to generate power. I believe these are Central Receiver Concentrating Solar Power plants. I also saw huge areas of wind farms on that drive. Pictures I took:
I have seen some Wind Farms in the Western Cape, several coal power stations, and some damns which were also Hydro Power Stations.
While in David’s car, we got into a lot more detail about the Solar Park. In its own rights, it is a very unique project for power generation. It is the third big project in South Africa by the main shareholder company, called Engie (http://www.engie.com/en/). This company has been a global energy player for decades and has millions of private product customers in Africa. In 2018, they reported revenue of 60 billion EUR. Within this decade, the company shifted its focus and started investing massively in renewable energies, not limited to wind, solar, geothermal, biomass and hydroelectric. They have sell down Exploration and Production in fossil fuels and stopped building new coal power plants.
Our first stop on the driving tour was a maintenance building. It looked like a large airplane hangar. Perhaps it is where the Solar Park housed its two fire engines, one of which I saw driving between the Solar Panels later that day. Parked outside the hanger where two cleaning trucks which were getting some attention. Each truck had a large mechanical arm with fluffy duster looking devices in the front of it. It appeared at first to be a mobile carwash machine.
The plant uses these two trucks to keep the 384 000 mirrors spotless. I was told the goal is to clean the mirrors to a measured reflectivity of about 95%. , or perhaps I should say shininess. Something that was possible if the trucks worked together and ran full time. I did notice some dirt on a few of the mirrors… but I have a cleaning disorder which is borderline ADHD.
Our second stop was the entrance to the huge expanse of land where the solar collectors were. The plant itself is about 4.5 km² and the land is leased from a local mine who are paid ‘rent’ in carbon credits and a rental fee.
I stood next to one of the pylons (there are thousands) and listened to the sound it made every 15 seconds with its motor adjusting the huge mirrors attached to it, making sure they stayed perfectly in line with the sun.
While in the shade of these structures, we discussed some of the technology being used. Parabolic Trough Technology is not the youngest technology in its field, but in Africa, and on this Power Plant, we have the largest parabolic through (7meters aperture)as implementation was concerned. You would find much smaller plants in Spain. While on the subject of Spain, it would be remiss of me not to mention some information I found in my research which confirmed the Power Plant experienced some challenges with labour force and objections regarding the amount of people from Spain used during its set up.
I also found some YouTube videos with some EFF members sharing their views on the working arrangements.
I hope Africa will beat Spain’s record for use of this type of technology and (other than South Africa) we have some perfect spots in Kenya and Namibia. On the continent, we already have the Noor Complex, which is reported to be the world's largest solar power park in its field. Unfortunately, despite our continent’s excellent potential for this power solution, penetration is still very low. This problem can be fixed if while the costs are dropping. We need to learn more about this type of technology and its benefits. It will become more popular, and the consumer will sway corporates and governments into implementation. This is the reason I write about these subjects, to share information, and it is so important because if you speak to youngsters they will only talk about coal power plants, or perhaps nuclear, and these two types of power plants are totally outdated concepts (in my opinion), and not viable in any way if you consider the bigger picture.
Despite only running for a few months, the Kathu Solar Power Park already had a reputation in the nearby town, I know this because I asked locals. No one I spoke with had either a negative or positive opinion. It was nice that everyone I spoke to at least knew about the Power Plant, one business even quoted how many kilometres it was away from their location which impressed me.
Power Plants of any sort create a noticeable boost in employment for local communities. Kathu Solar Power Park would have provided job prospects before its official construction started and then continued during the 32 months it took to complete. The Solar Park opened a few months later than it should have, but that had no negative effect on employment or operations. My research notes on points related to job creation detailed nearly 500 locals were used in certain activities, and during a peak job employment boom period nearly 1700 people were employed in some way or another. There are conflicting reports reflecting both positive and negative data on final numbers, but what I have shared now is a good average.
One bit of information shared by David, and not found on my research, was his personal involvement with an education project. Management took a 90 local community residents and enrolled them through a self-created training program intended to upskill participants, increase their employability, and to see if any could be employed in the full-time operations of the Power Plant. Training took place at some of the local town facilities and also on the Power Plant. This sort of initiative I absolutely love, and at the end of it, they did employ 25 of the graduates.
David studied at Stellenbosch University, and he agreed that there was a growing interest in renewable energy solutions, but that there was still not enough awareness and drive for change in the global community.
Moving on with our tour, we got back in the car and drove towards the one corner of the Park, the sides of the power station are perfectly aligned with North, South, East and West, and we used a road with a feeder pipe to the right of us. The pipes are silver and sparkle in the sun. There are over 60km of piping in total.
Between the feeder pipes and the solar collectors are a device called ball joints. These allow the heat transfer liquid to pass from the feeder pipes into the absorber pipe which are on the moving troughs. These ball joints, unfortunately, occasionally leak and are part of the checks the plant has to do continuously. Broken mirrors are another consumable. Regardless, maintenance is ongoing at any Power Plant and I would with confidence say the cost to maintain this type of Plant, versus a Nuclear or Coal Plant, Rand to Watt value is far lower.
For my tech followers, I want to explain how electricity is generated, and I will do so in a simplistic format so as not to lose my other readers in the process. The Kathu Solar Park works a lot like a Coal Power station, except for the fact heat is not generated on site, and instead, it is captured from the Sun. Other than that and just like many other Power Plants, Kathu Solar Park has a steam turbine, pipes, pumps, valves, heat exchangers, control systems, engineers, and a system to cool its operational fluids.
The troughs on this Power Plant are mirrors shaped in such a way as to reflect light towards the absorber pipe, similar to how a DSTV satellite dish targets signals into the receiver. (With an exception for Steve and some of his fans.)
A special fluid is pumped from the centre of the plant through the solar collectors in the absorber pipes and then, once heated, flows back to the centre of the plant. The fluid enters the heart of the plant at the same place it leaves it, so its design is a lot like arteries and veins in our body from our heart. An aerial view of the plant would show the piping and Troughs around the heart of the Plant in the shape of a very large ‘H’.
The fluid in the pipes is either cold or hot depending on which one you are inspecting. Just please bear in mind, when I say cold in the context of this article, the fluid is still over 150 degrees Celsius at least. The hot fluid, which nears 400 degrees is used to heat up water. It is not used directly on the turbine. The water once heated is so hot it creates superheated steam, and that is used to power the turbine, and this process happens a twice before the steam is sent off to get cooled. The steam that goes to the turbine, makes it spin, turning a generator which generates power, and that electricity is fed into the power grid.
The proprietary liquid used in the pipes, while excellent for its purpose, is very dangerous in that it is highly flammable and also toxic. It is a top priority for the staff to keep an eye on it and I saw some precautionary equipment on part of my tour. In fact, I saw a lot of safety equipment all over the place. One device looked like an outdoor shower. The plant has not had any major disasters related to the environment or even its staff.
Not all the heat from the Solar Troughs goes towards generating steam for the turbine, some go to the Power Plant’s thermal batteries, two colossal tanks which have over 47 000 tons of molten salt. One tank is hotter than the other.
These tanks are called thermal batteries because they store heat energy. They also set the Power Plant aside from many others that use the sun to generate power because this Power Plant is able to continue to generate power even when there is no direct sun for up to four and a half hours. The same batteries are used to kick start the Power Plant into operation like a car starter motor early in the morning.
Another impressive structure that sets this Power Plant apart from others is its dry cooling towers. Most Power Plants use water to cool their systems, but this uses air and fans which is less efficient, but uses very little water. This is necessary in this water scarce country.
I also found the little gadgets that track the sun very interesting, helping the Solar Panels stay in the optimal position to catch as much Sun as possible. There are three of these relatively small clusters of instruments set up diagonally across the Solar Park.
I walked around the heart of the Power Plant, climbed to the top of the roof of the main electrical building while holding the side rails which you have to do as part of the rules on site.
I stood under the cooling building, I visited the control room where the operational team were eating pizza from the night before, but still managed to take a break and share a great deal of technical information with me. 45% of the materials used to build this Power Plant came from Africa. This power plant generates enough power for nearly 180 000 homes. If a house has an average of 3 people, you can estimate that this is enough power to supply all the homes of East London (population of around 480k people) or Bloemfontein (Population of around 470k people).
This is a substantial amount of electricity!
At the same time it generates power for its own operations. It is going to save six million tons of CO2 emissions over the next two decades.
Africa has enough sun and wind on one side of our continent to power all of the planets current power needs with the use of Green Tech. We need the technology to harvest it and a new way to distribute it. Why is this not happening?
Renewable Energy projects are not monopolized by large corporates, and those corporates involved have a more inclusive set up than older power stations.
Green projects help the planet, help the people around them, and help us be the best we can be. The opportunities for local communities and entrepreneurs to get involved at some level or another in the process of delivering on power generated by renewable energies is colossal.
We can solve our World’s energy and unemployment crisis at the same time!
I would like to work more with projects like the Kathu Solar Park, and perhaps come back in the future to do a follow up to see how the local community has benefited from the pledged support of R37 million in social programs and the shared profit from the trust they have set up for the community.
I am extremely excited to be living at a time where the human race is challenged to become better, and so proud to see when we take some steps in the right direction.
What we need now is more people to be aware of green technology and to prioritize its use, creating a wave of change. Will you be one of those people?
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Published June 2019