Robben Island embraces solar power

Probably most famous for housing Nelson Mandela for 18 years, along with other South African political prisoners, Robben Island made international headlines in 2017 for different reasons.

In an effort to help make the World Heritage Site green, a 1M kilo Watt hours (kWh) solar energy micro grid was constructed, valued at R25 million [approx. USD 500,000]. The system has the capacity to generate 666.4 kWh of power supply and consists of 1,960 Canadian Solar efficiency modules. At the time of installation, it was the largest combined solar and lithium-ion storage micro-grid system in South Africa.

Originally commissioned by the Department of Tourism as a pilot for the Green Tourism Incentive Programme (GTIP), there was intense competition to develop the solar micro-grid. 27 bidders competed against each other to win the project which was ultimately awarded to SOLA Future Energy.

Each year, Robben Island uses around 2 million kWh of electricity and has never been connected to South Africa’s main electricity grid, but the solar plant’s development is expected to pay for itself within five years.  Speaking at the launch event, South Africa’s then-Tourism Minister, Tokizile Xasa said, “What we are therefore looking at, is that this project will save the fiscal an estimated R5 million [approx. USD 400,000] per annum.”

Prior to the micro grid being built, the 90 houses and administrative buildings on the island, along with the small harbour and the desalination plant, had to rely on a small, diesel-fuelled MV reticulation system.

The 828 kWh battery storage system also means that solar power can be stored and used when it’s cloudy and at night, thereby helping residents to save around 280,000 litres of diesel per annum. According to WSP, the solar farm’s developer, this “adds up to savings of approximately R5,000,000 [approx. USD 400,000] per year.”

Speaking about these savings, Tourism Minister Xasa claimed, “It is estimated that the system will reduce the use of diesel generators by almost 45%, which means that the annual diesel usage will drop from around 619,000 litres to 344,000 litres, saving the Island about 275,000 litres of diesel per annum.”

Since becoming operational in October 2017, around 110,000 kWh of electricity have been generated and around 800 tonnes of carbon emissions have been avoided according to an interview with Dr Dom Wills, co-founder and CEO of SOLA Future Energy, the plant’s developers.

Speaking of his company’s ambition and green vision for the future, Wills noted that, “At SOLA, we firmly believe that Africa needs access to clean and affordable energy in order to grow economies and strengthen communities throughout the continent. Because of solar PV’s distributed and affordable nature, we believe that propelling the adoption of solar PV will enable Africa to grow and ultimately benefit its people. Our mission is to see as many businesses in Africa as possible powered by the sun.”

Although results have been impressive, this solar plant only marks the first stage of Robben Island’s vision to become as famous for being green as it is for being the former of home of Mandela and other famous prisoners. In another initiative, small tourism enterprises will be encouraged through a cost-sharing grant to retrofit their systems with energy efficiency systems, and other responsible tourism initiatives are set to be announced.


Image courtesy of Flickr. Originally published by S&S on May 23, 2019.


Related posts