Group Five has announced plans for a solar plant in South Africa

Relying on dirty coal energy rather than renewable sources is anything but fashionable in 2011, not to mention the damage to the environment.  However, South African construction firm Group Five has announced plans to construct a solar plant to produce solar energy across the country.

South Africa’s fourth-largest construction firm, Group Five announced this week that it plans to build a R5bn solar power plant in the Northern Cape to supply power to Eskom within two years.

Physics professor at the University of Johannesburg Hartmut Winkler believes that Northern Cape is the most suitable province in the country for solar power stations.

“On average it enjoys more sunshine hours than other parts of the country, and is fairly cloud-free throughout the year,” he said. “Furthermore, the arid nature of much of the province means that land there is both cheaper and unsuitable for intensive agriculture.”

The country’s renewable energy strategy has set a target of 10 000 gigawatt hours of energy to come from renewable resources by the year 2013.

Professor Wikus van Niekerk of Stellenbosch University’s Centre for Renewable and Sustainable Energy Studies (CRSES) believes the target is reasonable, citing the fact that it is only 4% of energy consumption in SA.

In addition, by 2012, SA could be generating 5 000 megawatts of power from another proposed R150bn solar park, announced last year.

“The reason [the target] will not be reached is because the government is tardy in implementing its own targets,” said Van Niekerk.

Group Five’s proposal could function in support of the 49Million (49M) initiative to reduce coal-generated electricity consumption, endorsed by Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe as “the biggest energy saving movement ever seen in this country”.

On the sidelines of an African refinery conference, Group Five’s director of engineering and construction, Greg Heale told Reuters that the group’s solar project would go ahead only if it was selected as part of Department of Energy’s renewable energy procurement process.

He also said that the company expected to conclude all contractual arrangements, including off- take agreements, within the next nine months.

Constructing large solar generating plants has a significant short term economic benefit in producing construction jobs, but once the plant is completed its employment advantage drops. A study by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in the U.S. predicted that building a single 1,000 megawatt solar power plant in Nevada would generate over 2,000 jobs for three years as it was being built. After building, however, the job benefits dropped precipitously for the next four years, before slowly climbing to just over 200 new jobs. Given the high rate of unemployment in certain locations throughout South Africa, the benefit of short-medium term jobs is beneficial no matter what the long term trends might be.

Big solar power plants are only a small part of the story. Solar power is a distributed energy: it is available everywhere and can be easily harvested by placing small batteries of solar cells on large numbers of local buildings, saving land that would otherwise be needed to operate big solar plants. Locally installing solar cells creates jobs installing those cells on houses, businesses and other buildings, stimulating local economies. If solar cells were manufactured locally in small factories as the solar movement occurs, it would provide another boost to the economy in the form of manufacturing jobs

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