The largest storage facility of concentrated solar power in the world is currently being built in South Africa.

CHRIS Ehlers is Business Director of ACWA South Africa.

BUSINESS DAY TV: The largest storage facility of solar power in the world is currently being built right here, in South Africa. It’s in the tiny town of Bokpoort which is near Upington in the Northern Cape. My guest in the News Leader studio will talk about the project and the future of power in South Africa. Chris Ehlers is the Business Director of ACWA South Africa.

Chris…so in December this year you’ll be able to give us 50MW of power. But that’s not the real story…the real story is that the storage facility is a world first.

CHRIS EHLERS: That’s correct. It is the largest storage facility in its class. It has a storage capacity of 9.3 hours, so what does that mean? We are able to release that sun energy which we have captured during the day time after the sun has gone down, especially when it is needed during the evening peak between 17h00 and 21h00. In South Africa where the demand is the highest, we are able to release that energy and help to contribute to the current peak challenges we have in South Africa.

BDTV: So is this going…storage has always been a problem with solar. Is this going to give solar the edge over wind?

CE: Look, there is today…concentrated solar power is the only renewable form which can store energy on a utility scale…wind cannot do it and neither can photovoltaic (PV).

BDTV: What about other terms of alternative power, and I want to bring in nuclear here because for some reason, South Africa seems to like nuclear…whereas many parts of the world don’t.

CE: Yes, nuclear is a completely different game first of all. It’s like where you compare a champion’s league with national league in football terms. Nuclear had a massive hit obviously in 2011 with Fukushima in Japan. Since then the global market for nuclear has changed fundamentally.

BDTV: But it is something that South Africa is considering in their mix of power, and shouldn’t they just be doing more solar and more wind, given that we have so much sunshine in this country.

CE: A very good question. You have tremendous options with the renewable resources, and they’re great here in South Africa. You have…South Africa is amongst the three highest locations with the highest solar radiation in the world. You have massive wind capacity in the Eastern Cape for example…so there is tremendous capacity in South Africa. So do you need a very large nuclear programme in South Africa given the high stress in financial terms…never mind the implementation of these mega projects…?

BDTV: …and the risk…

CE: And the risk, so that can be debated.

BDTV: How do you see the mix of power in South Africa in the future, how much are we going to use renewables, forgetting about nuclear for now?

CE: Yes we have today about 95% of all electricity in South Africa generated through coal…so coal firing obviously. So that is a tremendous challenge and if you compare that with other countries in the world, I believe South Africa is in the top three in that kind of ratio and percentage, generating power by coal, and that has to be reduced…

BDTV: …and that is yesterday’s story.

CE: That is yesterday’s story, that has to be reduced in order to get a much more sustainable mix over time. And that’s where again renewable comes into play very heavily to…very quickly to bring that renewable capacity online. So that is where the renewable programme of the Department of Energy has been very successful, has been kicked off in 2011…

BDTV: But it’s slow…

CE: Not really…if you compare it with other programmes which are currently run in South Africa. Since the programme kicked off in 2011, the country has brought roughly 1,500MW online, so that is producing already today. Another 1,500MW will come online in the next few months. Our project at Bokpoort is part of that and another 3,000MW has already been dedicated to bidders.

BDTV: Okay, but there’s plenty more that they could do given that we live in this land of abundant sunshine. I want to go on to talk about energy globally. Now the very admirable Elon Musk of Tesla says that he will fundamentally change the way the world uses energy. He is of course referring to his home batteries and his business batteries that use solar. What do you think of that comment?

CE: Look, it is a very bold statement, so well done for him. Will it solve the problem immediately, for sure not? So again the battery storage is something that has to be developed over time so I think we are a decade away to have approved technology which can store energy on a utility scale. So what I mean if I say that, is for example with Tesla’s batteries, they won’t be able to store 50MW of capacity. So with CSP storage, we can do that today.

BDTV: But isn’t that possible that every home could have its own little battery…and let me tell you that this was a prediction by Nostradamus that each house will have a little box that will power it. So what Tesla is doing isn’t that possible?

CE: It is possible in the future, that every house has a battery to store it. The capacity is a different question…is it enough to run your TV or is it enough to run your entire household…in winter especially when it’s cold outside? But there are also other forms, for example models…you’ve got your little environmentally friendly diesel generator in your house, and that can do the same job. So that’s not the only solution Tesla is providing.

BDTV: Yes, but it’s all about caring for the environment and using a diesel generator is definitely not on that end of caring for the environment. Going back to your project, you say in your media release that the Upington area has the potential to attract many other global investors. Who are you referring to?

CE: Yes, it’s basically the Northern Cape and as mentioned, that’s one of the top…highest energy sun radiating locations in the world. So I also call it the solar valley of the future and it has already interested investment from all over the world. You have a lot of European companies investing in solar here in the Northern Cape. We are from Saudi Arabia so for us it’s not the first project, we are doing many more over the years to come.

BDTV: You also do desalination plants, are you planning any more in South Africa?

CE: Desalination we do in the Middle East on a very large scale, so we produce 40% of all desalt water in Saudi Arabia…

BDTV: No plans in South Africa?

CE: In South Africa not in the short-term, but in the mid-term to come we will have a good look at it.