Touws River using solar to change their fortunes

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Touws River is a small township in Western Cape in South Africa.  The economy of this small town started to go down in 1990 when Spoornet, now known as Transnet, the South African rail operator withdrew the service that travelled through Touws River.  At the time it was not deemed to be a viable service to keep running due to it losing money.  The impact of this decision was for a declining economy with no green shoots of hope.  Once the rail service was removed, banks and businesses soon followed.  The rail link was responsible for most economic in the town. 

Nearly 30 years later, Touws River now has a second chance thanks to the CPV1 solar power plant.  In 2013 a 36MW solar farm was installed by Pele Green Energy.  This created over 600 jobs in Touws River and the surrounding area.  The solar plant has been running since 2015 and has a 20 year operational licence.  Pele Energy are also conscious of the impact of their businesses on surrounding areas. 

Knowledge Pele is an agency within the Pele Energy group of businesses with the sole remit of looking after the social and economic development of the surrounding areas and communities around their investments.  Knowledge Pele looks to enter co-investment with communities and enable these communities to take ownership of an asset and be responsible for the returns.  This is very different to handing over an asset where the community have no idea of how to operate the asset properly.  This can be detrimental and cost a local community more money.  With the support of Knowledge Pele the aim is for the community to be educated to become self-sufficient.

Once a large project, in this case the CPV1 solar farm, is installed a budget is set aside for development of smaller projects in the local community.  One of the projects around the CPV1 solar farm was a small hydroponic farm that has been built next to Touws River Primary School. 

The primary school has a rooftop solar system that was paid for by crowd funding.  This is used to power the primary school as well as the hydroponic farm.  The hydroponic farm is being paid for by the socio-economic development budget.  It should take approximately 10 years for this fund to be paid back, at which point the money will be re-invested into another project.  This is also of benefit for the school.  This no-fees school will be able to use the electricity generated without paying for it.  The hydroponic farm will employ local people, creating further jobs.

This economic diversification will benefit the local area for many years to come.  If more projects are created off the back of installations like the CPV1 farm.  Second chances like the one being given to Touws River could be of great importance to smaller towns that were set up around one industry.  For example, any mining settlement that is now seeing a decline could massively benefit from the regeneration of this type.

The positive thing about a solar installation coming to a town like this is primarily the creation of jobs.  A solar farm needs manpower during the manufacturing stage.  It also needs infrastructure in order for this to be built.  The ongoing running and maintenance of these installations will create permanent jobs.  In comparison to a mining industry, where the natural resource will at some point run out, the natural resource for solar power generation will not run out. 

With the development of technologies moving at such a rate, the thirst for power will not be declining for many years to come.  This means that the supply and demand for electricity in a solar installation will not disappear.  With this in mind, the solar installations that have the potential to be built all over the continent of Africa could change lives for many years to come.

The second benefit to come from potential projects like this is perhaps the more obvious one.  The number of people across the continent of Africa without access to electricity is still incredibly high.  While more people in Africa now have access to electricity than ever before, it is still believed over half a billion people do not have access to electricity.

In 2018 approximately 1GW of solar capacity was installed across Africa.  According to reports by the International Renewable Energy Agency, this took the total installed capacity across Africa to 5GW.  At present Africa only accounts for 1% of the installed Solar capacity across the planet.  This statistic alone, shows the potential for Solar growth across Africa.  One of the main problems with this possible growth is an aging, underdeveloped and in many cases non-existent grid.

This lack of grid may give Africa the opportunity to develop their consumer electricity offerings in a different way to many other parts of the world.  Where other countries already have a grid, solar and other renewable energy sources are being brought into replace and subsidise current fossil fuel powered electricity generation.  Across Africa there is a great possibility that a more localised structure may be used.  This would mean that areas with no access to electricity could be brought online and instantly become 100% reliant on green energy.  Therefore, while the current percentage of solar use is very low, Africa has the potential to grow very quickly and also rapidly change the percentage use of renewables.

Sub-Saharan Africa is expected to see the largest growth in Solar usage.  The growth of Natural Gas power generation in North Africa is likely to reduce the growth of Solar in the North.  Southern Africa has the greatest potential for growth with the higher number of people without access to Electricity.  With all this in mind, Africa could be one of the first continents to be using Solar to offer Electricity to new users rather than re-powering current users.

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