Cape Times Melanie Gosling 1 December 2010.

SOUTH Africa sits firmly in the world’s “sunbelt”, a region drenched with solar radiation, yet electricity generation from photovoltaic solar energy had “disappeared” from the country’s future electricity plan…

The Department of Energy’s draft integrated resource plan (IRP), which maps out the mix of electricity generation for the next 20 years, was criticised in public hearings for virtually ignoring photovoltaic (PV) solar power.

The government panel at the hearings was told that PV solar power was the fastest-growing solar energy in the world, with installed capacity growing globally at a rate of 60 percent a year. Yet the IRP did not include PV solar power until 2016, and then it was a small amount. By that stage, South Africa would have “missed the boat” in getting this industry established, the panel was told.

The only two factories in Africa which manufacture PV solar panels, both in Cape Town, exported over 98 percent of their product because of the low demand locally. Together they employ 305 people. If the government were to include this power source in the future electricity mix, the industry would expand rapidly, creating jobs in the low-carbon economy.

Christopher Haw, a member of the South African Photovoltaic Industry Association (SAPVIA), told the government panel that PV solar had been “significantly underplayed” in the future electricity plan, yet worldwide it was regarded as a “mature and bankable technology”.

PV solar energy had come down in price by 40 percent since 2008 because of economies of scale. “It’s fallen dramatically in the last two to three years.That’s a cost reduction that’s likely to continue into the future.

“The projected cost decline is 35 percent a year, but no cost reductions are taken into account in the IRP. It is a fatal flaw,” Haw said.

The amount in installed PV solar power globally had more than doubled in the last two years, with an increase from 10 gigawatts in 2007 to 23 in 2009.

Ryan Hammond, chairman of the association, who has a PV solar panel factory in |Bellville, said the association would like to see 500MW of PV solar power in the electricity generation plan from 2011 to 2014, increasing later.

In an interview later, Hammond said he had designed his factory to be ready to expand by three times the capacity.

“But no bank will lend money for this if they don’t have certainty as to what the country is doing (with PV solar),” Hammond said.

Anthony Corin, who had established a small 5MW solar park near Malmesbury, said he had invested heavily in getting his project ready to come online next year, only to find that PV solar, which had been part of the first integrated electricity plan, had now disappeared from the second plan.

“What went wrong? South Africa is in the sunbelt, in the top 10 countries ripe for solar power. Our project could be grid connected within six months,” Corin said.