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Solar power can be people’s power

Andreas Wilson-Späth

There are a number of reasons why you might think solar power is a great idea:

– compared to other ways of generating electricity it’s clean, producing little in the way of dangerous byproducts or climate changing emissions;

– the source of energy is freely available, essentially inexhaustible and for us here in South Africa, particularly plentiful;

– the technology is relatively simple, well established and available off the shelf to anyone;  and

– costs are continuing to fall while efficiency is being improved steadily.

One of my own favourite aspects of solar energy, which is often overlooked, is its amazing scalability. On the one end of the spectrum, governments and companies can build massive sun-powered plants that supply entire cities with electricity, while on the other, you can use a little portable solar panel to keep your cell phone charged at home.

Exciting possibilities

This attribute makes solar energy extremely flexible and suitable for a wide range of situations. In South Africa, a number of small gadget-style applications are available and the Department of Energy’s Renewable Energy Independent Power Producer Procurement Programme (REIPPPP) is slowly becoming a reality, albeit on a pitifully small level.

Returning from a recent holiday road trip, I drove past the brand new concentrated photovoltaic solar project near Touwsrivier on the edge of the Karoo, which is scheduled to start feeding electricity into the national grid soon. Developed by a French company called Soitec, it’s one of 28 approved REIPPPP projects (8 onshore wind plants, 2 concentrated photovoltaic solar plants and 18 photovoltaic solar plants) which are eventually expected to provide a total capacity of just over 1400 megawatts.

But while there is a little bit of progress being made on either end of the scale, we’re really neglecting the most exciting possibilities that fall between these two poles: the liberating potential for individuals and communities to generate their own electricity. Real people’s power.

In principle, anyone can put solar panels on the roof of their house and that’s exactly what’s happening in the rest of the world. So why not here?

In Germany, not exactly a country known for its sunny weather – compared to South Africa it’s positively depressing in that department – about half of the solar energy isn’t produced by government, utility companies or large corporates, but by homeowners and farmers. There are entire villages that have gone renewable, pumping out more green electricity than they consume and exporting the rest to the grid.

The solar garden

But what about people who don’t have a piece of land or a suitable roof to put solar panels on? And what about the majority who can’t afford to?

In the USA, an alternative concept that may provide one answer to this dilemma is emerging. It’s called the solar garden and the idea is really quite simple. Members of a community club together to fund a solar project on a suitable piece of land in their area. The solar garden is built to suit their requirements and once it feeds electricity into the grid, they are credited for their contribution on their electricity bill.

So why is it taking so long for us to be able to own shares in local, community-owned, crowd-funded solar energy plants which would help to improve local energy self-sufficiency while reducing our carbon footprint?

Solar gardens are just one example of a number of cooperative ways in which groups of likeminded people could invest in clean, renewable energy instead of continuing to subsidise the dirty electricity produced using fossil fuels and uranium by large, monopolistic utilities like Eskom.

Eskom’s hold

And that, I think, is precisely where the problem lies: the hold that Eskom and the coal industry have on our national electricity infrastructure. Why would companies that prioritise making a financial profit by selling electricity want to foster ordinary people’s ability to make their own using free sunlight?

The capacity of solar energy to let individuals and groups of people produce their own, clean power locally may be good for the environment and communities, but it’s poison if you want to maintain your grip on the entire market while being as profitable as possible.

 Andreas is a freelance writer with a PhD in geochemistry. Follow him on Twitter:@Andreas_Spath

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