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Chasing the Northern Cape sun

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It was a cloudy day when we visited Scatec’s Dayson Klip 1 solar project close to Upington in the Northern Cape Province of South Africa. Image credit: Leon Louw for WhyAfrica

Chasing the Northern Cape sun

Global energy giant Scatec has taken the South African energy sector by storm. WhyAfrica visited Scatec’s Dayson Klip 1 solar project close to Upington in the Northern Cape Province during its recent Southern Africa Road Trip to find out how this Scandinavian company has become such a big part of the South African landscape.  

By Leon Louw     

It was a gloomy and wet morning when WhyAfrica arrived at Scatec’s Dyason Klip 1 (DK1) solar project close to the town of Upington in the Northern Cape Province of South Africa. Earlier that morning, with dark rainclouds rolling in from the south, I waddled through ankle deep water to open the typical South African farm gate that gave us access to one of Scatec’s six massive solar farms in South Africa.

Not being in this neck of the woods for many years, it was unusual to see row upon row of solar panels covering the characteristic knee-high shrubland and wilting grass. It was even more unusual to open a farm gate in this arid part of the country under cover of an umbrella in June. But we live in unusual times, right?

Changing weather patterns because of climate change, and trying to reduce carbon emissions, is exactly why this Norwegian based energy giant’s PVs are covering such large tracks of land in the Northern Cape. This entire region is normally drenched in rich rays of golden sunlight (the reason why Scatec has chosen this part of the world), not buckets of water.

But, on day three of our road trip the heavens opened-up. Although local livestock and grain farmers could dance with joy, overcast conditions, and non-stop torrential rain, is not what gets sun farmers excited, especially if their brief is to feed much needed electricity into beleaguered South Africa’s faltering national grid.

“This is an unusually wet dry-season, with less sunny days that what we are used to,” Sazi Ramoekipa, Operations and Maintenance Manager at Scatec, tells us upon arrival. “In a good month though, DK1 could provide South African power utility Eskom with more than 2500MW of electricity, like we did in February this year,” says Ramoekipa.

The Northern Cape holds significant potential to increase the share of renewable energy in South Africa’s energy mix, a country that still generates most of its electricity from coal, and who’s national grid continues to be plagued by load shedding and power cuts.

Amazingly, on the day of our visit, despite grey skies and unseasonal rain, Scatec’s DK1 solar panels still managed to generate some form of electricity to augment Eskom’s power supply, albeit in reduced quantities.

Hotspot for renewable energy

Some parts of the Northern Cape enjoy, on average, close to 290 days of sunlight, often accompanied by strong winds, which makes this far-flung province in South Africa one of the hotspots for renewable energy projects in Africa. Several solar farms and two wind turbine projects have sprung up around Copperton and Prieska, where we stayed over after our underground site visit to Orion Mineral’s Prieska mine the day before.

Scatec’s three solar farms and Spanish company Abengoa Khi Solar One’s imposing tower have become such a part of the Karoo landscape along the N14 from Upington to Keimoes that locals hardly blink an eye when being confronted with miles and miles of futuristic technology.

Abengoa’s unique solar plant, a stone throw from DK1, consists of a 205m high tower surrounded by 4,200 solar mirrored panels. It is the first and only concentrated solar powered thermal plant in Africa. Scatec’s three Upington facilities are situated on adjacent plots, 25km outside of the burgeoning town of Upington.

Scatec’s three solar farms and Spanish company Abengoa Khi Solar One’s imposing tower have become such a part of the Karoo landscape along the N14 from Upington to Keimoes that locals hardly blink an eye when being confronted with miles and miles of futuristic technology. Image credit: Leon Louw for WhyAfrica

Upington’s solar plant could power 120 000 households  

Ramoekipa says that when in full swing, DK1 produces close to 217GWh – enough   clean energy to service about 40,000 households annually. “The three projects combined could provide energy to more than 120,000 households and lead to the abatement of more than 600,000 tonnes of CO² annually,” he adds.

Scatec was awarded preferred bidder status for the Upington project in the fourth bidding round under the Renewable Energy Independent Power Producer Procurement (REIPPP) Programme in 2015. Construction of DK1 started in the first quarter of 2019 and the facility was commissioned towards the end of the same year.

The company has also started construction of the three Kenhardt projects, in the Northern Cape as well, under the Risk Mitigation Independent Power Producer Procurement Programme (RMIPPPP) after reaching financial close.

Once operational the Kenhardt project will have a total solar capacity of 540MW and battery storage capacity of 225MW/1,140MWh, and provide 150MW of dispatchable power under a 20-year Power Purchase Agreement to the Kenhardt region – in a country that is currently suffering from power shortages.

“This project is a first of its kind and will be one of the world’s largest solar and battery facilities. We are now looking forward to starting construction of this unique and exciting project, which will be a major contribution to South Africa’s economy and green energy sector,” said Scatec CEO Terje Pilskog, in an interview earlier this year.

The Kenhardt project will be the largest investment in Scatec’s history with a total capex of approximately R16.4-billion (USD962-million) to be financed by equity from the owners and R12.4-billion (USD727-million) in non-recourse project debt. The debt will be provided by a group of lenders which includes the Standard Bank Group as arranger and British International Investment.

Scatec sub-Saharan General Manager Jan Jurie Fourie, is convinced that the solar-battery project will address the so-called intermittency, or variability of renewables. Fourie says that the massive facility, which will be made up of three projects on a 10km-by-10km site, will be able to dispatch electricity into the South African grid between 5 o’clock in the morning and 9:30 at evening.

Being world class requires immense effort

Scatec’s plants use some of the best technology available in the solar energy sector. This means that the Upington complex is one of the top solar projects in the world. Making sure it remains this way is not always a walk in the park (so to speak), as we discovered during the visit. It requires immense effort from a dedicated and competent team. Every day brings new challenges, and to maintain such a massive technology hub, requires innovative solutions.

“The maintenance involved is quite intensive,” says Ramoekipa. “Because the equipment is very sensitive, it needs daily maintenance. The tracking systems to monitor the movement of the panels, for example, can get stuck, or communication constraints could prevent these panels from operating optimally,” Ramoekipa adds.

The solar panels in the plant face east in the morning and then needs to move west towards the evening using advanced technology. The grass underneath these panels needs to be maintained and cut at a length of about 200mm to 300mm. The grass cannot be removed completely though, as insects, rodents and other small mammal species need the vegetation cover as protection. Furthermore, longer grass cools the solar panels, and the temperature of each panel needs to be checked regularly, especially on a hot day. Ironically, solar panels need the sun but do not like the heat. At 0C 50 the panels are not that effective, for every degree over 0C 35, each panel is 4,9% less effective.

The upside of this intensive maintenance is that it creates unskilled jobs in a country and region where the unemployment rate is close to 34%. For example, a team of about 12 people is needed to clean the 232,464 panels once a week. In addition to cutting the grass and cleaning the panels, firebreaks need to be maintained and local security companies keep a watchful eye 24 hours a day. So, although most jobs are created during the initial construction phase of a solar plant, the assumption that such projects don’t create sustainable employment, is incorrect.

As we left DK1 the sun broke through the heavy clouds and the rain stopped. DK1 started humming like a chorus of cicadas on a hot day in the African bush. They gulped up the remaining rays of sun and slowly started turning towards the west. Come rain or shine, these suncatchers of the Northern Cape never stops searching. They chase the light to reduce our carbon emissions.

There is no doubt that research and technology will deal with the teething problems of large solar farms. Research is currently underway to deal with dust, cloud cover, size, and output. The structures within the cells of panels that will be used in the future are currently being upgraded to produce more power.  According to Ramoekipa, the panels at DK1 generates 480W, and they were installed only two years ago. The latest technology already generates 520W. Scatec continues expanding its footprint throughout Africa and if DK1 is anything to go by, the future is bright, even on a gloomy day.

It was a gloomy day when we visited Scatec’s Dayson Klip 1 solar project close to Upington in the Northern Cape Province. Watch the video here:


Leon Louw is the founder and editor of WhyAfrica. He specialises in the extraction and responsible utilisation of natural resources, the primary sector of African economies and Africa’s political economy. 

WhyAfrica does research, and reports about, natural resources and the primary sectors of African economies, and the infrastructure, equipment and engineering methods needed to extract and utilise these resources in an efficient, responsible, sustainable, ethic and environmentally friendly way, so that it will benefit the people of Africa.

Furthermore, WhyAfrica promotes Africa as an investment and travel destination, analyses the continent’s business environment and investment opportunities, and reports on how the political economy of African countries affects its development.         

WhyAfrica provides you with business intelligence that matters. Africa is our business, and we want it to be yours too. To subscribe to WhyAfrica’s free newsletter or digital magazine, and for more news on Africa, visit the website at www.whyafrica.co.za or send a direct message. WhyAfrica launched its first ever digital magazine in November 2021.

The company will undertake its annual road trip through South Africa, Zimbabwe, Zambia, the DRC, Malawi, Tanzania and Kenya in 2023. If you are interested in sponsorship or advertising opportunities, please contact me at leon@whyafrica.co.za. We have a wide range of different packages and combo deals to give your company the greatest exposure to a rapidly growing, African readership.  

The 2022 Southern Africa Road trip issue of WhyAfrica’s magazine is now available in print. The magazine was distributed in South Africa, Namibia, Zambia, Zimbabwe, and Botswana during WhyAfrica’s 2022 Southern Africa Overland Road Trip, the company’s new and innovative platform. WhyAfrica has expanded its product range and now offers its readers, followers, advertisers, subscribers and partners the following:

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