NMU gets new solar energy plant

Exciting new installation includes tracker systems that follow the arc of the sun

Key members of the team behind the NMU solar plant launch on Wednesday from left Standard Bank natural resources head Berrie de Jager, PPA's Dinesh van der Haar and NMU photovoltaic research group Prof Ernest van Dyk
Key members of the team behind the NMU solar plant launch on Wednesday from left Standard Bank natural resources head Berrie de Jager, PPA's Dinesh van der Haar and NMU photovoltaic research group Prof Ernest van Dyk
Image: Guy Rogers

Nelson Mandela University (NMU) took an important step towards generating its own electricity with the launch of a R16.5m one megawatt solar power plant on south campus on Wednesday.

The plant features a state of the art tracker system which programmes the photovoltaic panels to follow the arc of the sun from dawn until evening and a safety mechanism which flattens them out to reduce obstruction when the Port Elizabeth wind gets to strong.

The project was made possible through a partnership between Standard Bank, PPA Company, a subsidiary of Germany-based Tagex, and NMU.

Speaking at the launch, NMU photovoltaic research group head Prof Ernest van Dyk said it was an exciting event.

“The new plant will generate 1MW of sustainable electricity and help to shave off our peak demand and reduce by 40% our overall grid demand of 2.5MW on south campus.”

Electricity demand also happened through the night, however, so the plant would be generating 14% of the total energy needs of south campus and 5-6% of NMU’s total energy needs, he explained.

“The agreement is that the university will buy the electricity generated from PPA, and after 10 years we will take ownership of the plant which will of course bring our power supply costs right down.

“So it’s a long-term project that addresses our power needs and our commitment to clean energy and sustainability.

“The immediate new generation from this plant is not huge but it’s an important start and the university is looking to expand the whole programme.”

Standard Bank natural resources head Berrie de Jager said climate change was the overarching trend behind the need to move to renewable energy, for the bank.

Elements of the climate change phenomenon ranged from the Mpumalanga highveld’s coal-fired power stations, which had made the area the 2nd second worst sulphur dioxide hotspot in the world, to the infernos raging through the Amazon.

Parallel to this situation, some 600 million people in Africa alone still had no access to electricity. On the one hand population growth would exacerbate this situation and on the other hand clean power supplies were available, he said.

“Three major steps would would transform the energy world. They are the three Ds – decarbonise, decentralise and digitalise.”

The new NMU plant fitted this profile exactly, he said.

“It’s using smart digital technology to help NMU move away from the grid and thereby reduce their emissions from coal-fired power.”

Dinesh van der Haar of PPA said a key catalyst for the renewable energy sector in Germany was when the government introduced a legal framework and banks were able to give loans with less risk.

“About 150000 jobs have been created and it could be double that in South Africa as we are not automated like they are.”

He said the NMU plant consisted of 1200 panels across 30 dual-axis tracking systems, plus another 2234 fixed photovoltaic panels, as well as a converter to transform the energy captured from sun’s rays to electricity.

"The mix of different systems and orientations is designed to maximise solar yield, as well as the distribution within the allocated area.”

The tracker systems were imported from Germany and the installation team went through three jackhammers to anchor them properly with steel-reinforced concrete in the rock-hard NMU site, he said.

“They are programmed to maximise solar energy yield by fitting in with different locations and seasons wherever they are installed around the globe, he said.

“So these ones wake up before sunrise and track the sun’s east to west arc and elevation through the day before going to sleep in the evening and then being ready to repeat the process the next day.”

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