Electrifying S. Africa with sunshine


JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- This country has plenty of sunshine but not enough electricity, so a partnership between U.S. and South African companies is trying to do something about that.

Hazel O'Leary, the U.S. secretary of energy, toured a new factory yesterday that employs 30 people making solar electric panels on the outskirts of the bleak black township of Alexandra, then traveled to the township of Soweto to see the products in action.

With the hot sun blazing down from the African sky, Ms. O'Leary agreed that this country was a natural for solar power.

"You have over 300 days of sunshine," she noted. "And you have a need for more energy away from the existing power grid in places where it is not economically practical to extend transmission and distribution.

"The term you hear is 'appropriate technology,' and that certainly is the case here."

The technology is called photovoltaic cells: silver panels that measure about 3 feet by 18 inches and convert into electricity the sunshine that exists virtually uninterrupted during the dry winter months over most of the country, and still dominates the sky on all but the rainiest of summer days. Each cell produces 50 watts of electricity.

They are being made in the Alexandra factory by Suncorp Manufacturing, a company put together by Spire Corp., a Massachusetts firm that is the leader in this field, and Renaissance Group, a South African venture designed to get blacks into positions of management and ownership. The Department of Energy brought the two together and provided funds to start the project.

"One panel is enough for a house to have two low-power fluorescent lights and a radio," said Spire President Roger Little, one of a group of more than 100 Americans involved in the energy field accompanying Ms. O'Leary on a week-long trip to South Africa to investigate the country's energy needs.

Some of Suncorp's first products went to the Ipolekeng primary school in Soweto. Four panels power a large light that shines over the school grounds at night. Others are atop the principal's office and library, powering lights and a computer that was donated by the Department of Energy.

Ms. O'Leary told the students at the school yesterday that the project, including a $600,000 grant from the United States, began after South African President Nelson Mandela visited the United States last year and asked her to help his country electrify 2.5 million homes over the next five years.

"This is a partnership," Ms. O'Leary said, explaining that while Suncorp will eventually generate 250 jobs in South Africa, it also is responsible for 35 in the United States. "It is really of benefit to both countries."

One of the mysteries of South Africa is why, with all its sunshine, it does not have more solar power. The answer lies in the fact that white South Africans, the only ones who counted under apartheid, have always had plenty of access to relatively inexpensive electricity. The country actually produces more electricity than those connected to the current electric grid can use.

With the needs of whites taken care of, until the country started on the road to a nonracial democracy five years ago, there was little push to service the third of the country, almost all black, that had no access to the surfeit of electricity.

Eskom, the utility monopoly, gets high marks for its program to extend electricity -- generated mainly by coal-powered facilities -- into townships, squatter communities and other black areas previously denied the power.

But the geography of the country means that the program is not going to reach everyone as a vast number of South Africans live in rural areas that are often quite remote.

The Department of Energy estimates that about 2 million homes that cannot be connected to the current electric grid can be electrified with solar energy, as well as some 9,000 schools and 2,000 medical clinics.

The clinics will be used to get the program off the ground as a government-funded program starts supplying those in rural areas with the solar panels, which cost about $250 each. The primary function of the panels will be to provide power for refrigeration, which is needed to store medicines, and for computers used to communicate with large medical centers.

Suncorp also envisions a market in places that have access to the grid, such as the Soweto school, where the cost of making the hookup -- which can run into the thousands of dollars -- is prohibitive.

Robert Annan, a Department of Energy official, said similar installations have been successful in Brazil and India.

"The only resistance we run into is some people who think it's second-class technology, who want to wait to get hooked up to the grid," he said. "But no one who has gotten the panels has given them back.

"What we find is that they are used for such things as irrigation pumping stations. They do more than just give people light, they result in a higher standard of living for the entire area."

Mr. Annan pointed out that whatever costs are involved in the purchase, installation and maintenance of the panels can usually be paid for over time by their users even in the most rural areas. The users now spend much more for alternative energy sources, such as coal, kerosene and wood.

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