South Africa needs surplus electricity from solar plants, says minister

By Elena Kachkova in Johannesburg April 26, 2024

South Africa’s Electricity Minister Kgosientsho Ramokgopa has called for discussions to assess ways of making surplus electricity from existing renewable energy facilities available to the grid.

Ramokgopa insisted that the government needed this additional power generated by independent power producers (IPPs) that was currently being “thrown away,” while the country was battling an energy crisis, News24 reports.

The minister was speaking at a regular weekly update on the implementation of the Energy Action Plan (EAP) on April 22. He said the government was aware of several solar and battery storage plants generating a surplus of 17 MW to 60 MW of electricity.

However, South Africa’s state-run power utility Eskom is not allowed to buy it owing to contract limits with IPPs under the much-criticised renewable energy risk-mitigation procurement programme.

This means that any surplus power generated by a producer will not become available to the grid, even at the time when the country is experiencing rolling power outages, locally called load shedding, implemented by the struggling power utility.  

“This is amidst an energy challenge in this country,” Ramokgopa said as cited by News24. “But, the country needs [surplus] electricity,” he added. “It is one of those low-hanging fruits that do not require any additional measures.”

The issue, which has been under consideration for years, was again raised by the leadership of Norwegian renewable energy firm Scatec during Ramokgopa’s recent visit to the group’s Kenhardt solar-battery facility in the Northern Cape.

The Kenhardt project, totalling 540 MW of solar photovoltaic capacity and 225 MW/1.1 GWh of battery storage, is one of the world’s largest hybrid solar facilities. A spokesperson for Scatec told News24 that an additional 150MW could be produced by the project.

According to the minister, finding a way to absorb the surplus power generated by Kenhardt and other IPPs requires a “three-way conversation” between Eskom, the IPPs and the government’s IPP Office regarding a fair contractual model.

“We have initiated discussions with Eskom and the IPP Office to see how best we can design an intervention that makes it possible for us to benefit from that excess generation, without undermining what was a public procurement process to contract the megawatts,” Ramokgopa said.

This would only be feasible, he added, if there was sufficient grid capacity to absorb the surplus electricity. However, the rate of 200km to 300km per year at which Eskom has been building transmission lines is far below the required rate of 2,000km per year, says News24.

South African Photovoltaic Industry Association (SAPVIA) technical specialist De Wet Taljaard explained that solar plants could easily produce 25% or 30% more power than their nameplate capacity during summer months with sufficient sunlight.

“The excess generation can be stored in batteries and used to replenish pumped hydro storage dams,” Taljaard was quoted as saying.

“During winter, it can help prevent load shedding during the day, keeping shopkeepers and businesses happy. Solar PV can play a role in lessening the impacts but will not solve load shedding. It is just one tool in the toolbox,” he added.

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