Through government legislation and private investment, nations around the globe have been making a choice – whether they will be frontrunners in renewable energy, or if they will stick to the familiar past. When we talk about green and renewable energy, certain parts of the world spring to mind, particularly Europe and China. However, as technology develops, and renewable solutions become more practically and financially feasible, the possibilities they open are making a difference everywhere. We spoke with Axel Scholle, Managing Director of Sustainable Power Solutions (Pty) Ltd. (SPS), on the changes this spreading technology can and is making for the African continent.
“Generation for generations”: SPS’s company slogan encompasses the concept of sustainable energy. It shows a focus not only on current profits or benefits for their stakeholders, but a focus on providing solutions that have guaranteed profits and benefits for the future. For Axel Scholle, company Managing Director, sustainability is an issue close to his heart: “I was inspired to start my career in the renewable energy industry because I can actively make a positive difference to sustainable living. We want to ensure that our projects are a sustainable solution for our clients and the environment. The sun is a renewable energy source that gives us an opportunity to positively utilize with no environmental harm as opposed to non-renewable sources such as fossil fuels which are currently being capitalized on.”
Axel is the Founder and Managing Director for SPS since it began pioneering solar PV solutions in 2010, for both grid connected solar technologies. Today, SPS cover multiple angles in the solar energy field and a have strong partnership with a company providing flexible funding; SPS is an EPC (Engineering Design, Procurement & Construction) and O&M (Operations & Maintenance) company, providing both on and off grid solar solutions to clients that include the industrial, commercial, agriculture, mining and tourism sectors. “We design, construct and commission the system, and we’re typically involved in the maintenance and operation of the plant – which is a key element for ensuring a healthy ROI for clients. We like to view our clients as partners and enable them through training of their local operators, while we conduct the monitoring activities at our Head Office in Cape Town.
In addition to their connected and off-grid technology services, they also provide hybrid and energy storage options, allowing them to tailor their renewable energy services to best meet the practical needs of their clients’ varying situations. With offices in South Africa, Kenya and Namibia, and customers spanning sub-Saharan Africa and the surrounding African islands, these varying conditions often include geographical challenges such as reaching remote locations, climate conditions, economic changes or sometimes, navigating political or regulatory complications. To date, SPS have successfully completed multiple projects across South Africa, Namibia, Kenya and Saint Helena Island, constructing over 20MWp of solar projects and 1MWh of battery storage. Out of these, one of their most interesting projects using cutting-edge solar technologies was the installation of Kenya’s largest solar tracker, off-grid and battery storage system, commissioned in June this year.
“The project was implemented at a tourism location – on one of the largest National Parks in Kenya. The client was completely relying on diesel generators for 14 hours a day, so we designed an off-grid system that operates largely off solar, which is backed by battery storage. That was obviously a significant change for that lodge, not only in the use of fossil fuels, but also their carbon footprint reduction, energy savings and reduced noise pollution for the lodge and surrounds. The lodge consume between 1,400 to 1,700 units of energy a day, and the solar generates about 75% of that energy. This obviously leads to a significant reduction in generator running time.
SPS’s current pipeline has plenty more work lined up in in the sub-Saharan region. By second quarter 2018, they expect to have constructed an additional 5MWp and 2.5 MWh in projects. Working in this region, and in particular, in hard-to-reach towns, villages and tourism locations, is a rewarding experience for Scholle, and a large part of why he founded SPS. “Back when I was still in Namibia, it was satisfying to install solar at communities, there would be no lights when you arrived and there was light when you left. That significant change was always very fulfilling for me.
However, as life-changing and economic as renewable energy can be, it is still facing challenges, critics and resistance around the world, and Africa is no exception. “It’s an ongoing debate. I’m always baffled about how the information around nuclear energy can be so different, between different stakeholders it is a scientific subject. It’s the same with renewables.” We asked Scholle what he felt companies’ resistance to renewable energy stemmed from: “It’s a regime change, in the sense that if you move from centralized to de-centralized, there’s a lot less control. I think the utility sector is used to centralized large scale power generation plant, so a decentralized renewable energy doesn’t fit very well into that model.”
This resistance is particularly an issue when it comes to grid-connected solutions. Off-grid technology relies on the development of off-grid technologies and energy storage for efficiency and lowering costs, but on-grid also relies on cooperation from utility companies. This can vary from country to country, depending on regulations and laws, political attitude, and the nature of the national utility sectors. “The regulatory issue of whether we can connect to a grid – that is still something that is largely a grey area in Africa, and there are areas where we may see a regulatory change coming through with additional requirements. That gives a rickety feeling and some uncertainly for investors, when the regulatory environment is not clear.”
“The political climate of Africa is a bit shaky. You see what’s happening in Zimbabwe, and in Kenya we’re having election uncertainty. That will all have an impact on investment, and renewable energy is an upfront investment technology. The operational of it is very low, but someone still has to make that upfront investment.”
However, for solar energy to continue growing and benefitting people in a range of situations, Scholle feels that both avenues are necessary. “Renewable energy really benefited when it started to be used in grid connected configuration. It increased the scale of renewable energy much more than we ever did in the off-grid sector 20 years back. When the grid-connected program started in the ‘90s, it catapulted commercialization of the solar industry which lead to significant price decreases over the last two decades. Solar has become unstoppable; the numbers just make sense.
“In the storage development, we would expect a price reduction over the next 10 years, and this will allow us to reach communities, in particular, those in Africa, that we could not reach with grid electricity simply because it was too costly. This will open the gate to drive access to energy even further than to what has been achieved in the last 10 years.
Striving for the best is not just an attitude or mantra – it needs to be put into practice through practical means. In a field where technology is constantly developing, SPS ensure they use manufacturers and methods that lead to the best results. Testament to their progressive nature, SPS has invested in two testing facilities at their Lourensford Wine Estate offices. “One is basically a solar module test site, where we installed a small range of different module types that we either have used in projects, or have bought directly to do a longer-term performance test between different manufacturers and technologies. It’s a long-term site – it’s generating some electricity for the wine farm where it is based, and together with the research institutes, we can analyse the data and see how these different technologies compare.”
“The other site is a commercial battery storage system, so it’s a more commercial scale operation. We used this site to test technologies that we have now deployed into our off-grid solutions in East Africa and the Indian ocean territories. To do this, we took the smallest iteration of that technology and used it here. When there’s a new technology out there, there are a lot of promises – only with time do we see if they perform as they should.”
This push in East Africa and into the Indian ocean islands is the focus of the next two years for SPS. “There are markets there that are just becoming ready and mature now. Our aim over the next two years is to establish a solid presence in those countries where we clearly see a need for these technologies.”. Focusing on bringing sustainable power solutions to the areas that need it most, SPS’s long-term dream is to drive quality off-grid energy storage solutions, along with on-grid storage for utility services across Sub-Saharan Africa. “The sun’s the biggest resource that we have and it’s a no brainer that it’s become an increasingly important part in the energy mix of countries.” It’s a dream that could mean great things both for the future of Africa, and our planet as a whole – it’s a comfort to know that a company like SPS is working tirelessly to see it happen.