Energy & Environment

Sunday, 24 July 2011 22:27

Has solar powers day finally dawned?

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You’ve seen them in the country - even on the odd eccentric’s home in the city - and, like many people, you may have wondered why a country with such abundant sunshine (amongst the highest in the world, averaging 8 hours a day) has failed to embrace solar power more widely.
But now, finally, solar-powered water heaters – or geysers, as they’re more commonly known – are becoming a more viable option in South Africa, where several companies such as market leaders Xstream™ offer them for sale. Partly it’s the lure of a respite from Eskom’s intermittent electricity supply from the grid; partly it’s the realisation that that supply may be intermittent for some time and that the undoubted long-term benefits of installing solar water heating (substantially lower electricity bills and minimal dependence on Eskom for water heating) have therefore come more sharply into focus.

However, in South Africa, the challenge has always been to compete with coal as an energy source: South Africa’s cheap, quick, dirty and still abundant fossil fuel of choice is mined right here, powers most of our power stations and thus generates most of our as yet reasonably priced electricity. And then, until very recently, there was no government incentives to encourage investment in solar or other alternative energy options, as there are in, for instance, Germany.

“The irony is,” says Xstream™ CEO, Dawie Thirion, ”that a solar-powered water geyser can save up to 40% on household electricity costs, as it is one of the biggest drains on domestic electric usage – as we all learned when Eskom offered to insulate them for us during last year’s power cuts. But now there is at least one incentive which can be used to subsidise indirect solar systems and we certainly hope that government will provide them on the more popular direct systems soon.”

So maybe solar’s time has come. The much-awaited and potentially ground-breaking 100MW Concentrating Solar Power Tower planned for South African sun capital, Upington, may yet happen next year. In addition, there is a new cheaper solar panel coming onto the market at a fifth of the cost of the current conventional silicon-based panels. And then there’s the first Kyoto-induced Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) initiative to be formally registered in South Africa, generating the first carbon credits for the international “carbon market:” the energy-efficient Kuyasa low-cost housing project, complete with solar geysers, in Khayelitsha township, Cape Town. And imagine the possibilities for worldwide acclaim if the 2010 stadia could run on sun…

In the meantime, companies like Hotmix, manufacturer of the internationally patented Xstream™ range of electric and solar hot water cylinders, have been committed to enabling commercial and domestic customers to tap into solar power for many years. The Xstream™ range of boilers is uniquely designed and all are solar adaptable as standard: in other words, a solar panel can be connected to on installation or, indeed, at any future time. XStream™ cylinders are also made with a unique Epoxy-vinyl ester composite inner called Derakane™ which is completely corrosion-free, naturally insulated, low maintenance and extremely light. This allows the smoothly tapered and slim cylinders to be more easily fitted through trap doors for installation. They can also be fitted inside or outside, their electrical boxes being fully waterproof.

The costs involved in fitting such a solar-ready cylinder are not that much more than a conventional metal cylinder, but, long term, the benefits in cost-saving will be considerable as standard electricity tariffs continue to rise and the delivery of regular power becomes more erratic (Eskom, as we know, is less than able to supply electricity consistently).

But those incentives - or legislation that compels construction companies to include solar-powered geysers in new builds – are what is really needed. As Thirion concludes: ‘With an abundant natural energy source like the sun, solar-panel heated geysers should be the norm, not an oddity. But until legislation compels people to fit them to new houses or incentivises them to adapt or switch from their current all-electric geysers to a solar system, only the truly committed and informed will change, despite continuing frustration with Eskom’s delivery and rising prices.”

Maybe it’s time that Eskom, the government and the South African public caught a wake-up to what’s up in the sky, ready and waiting.

NOTES TO THE EDITOR: Xstream™ boilers are built under licence by Hotmix of Paarl in the Western Cape but their Sales and After Sales Service is nationwide. All boilers are SABS approved and conform to ISO 9001:2000. They range in size from 50l to 200l and weigh between 13kg and 29kg. Element power ranges from 1KW to 3KW. The company offers installation training courses for plumbers and is an accredited member of both the Central Energy Fund and SESSA (the Sustainable Energy Society of Southern Africa).

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