Energy and chemicals group Sasol says it will open a facility that will produce thin film solar-panels within about two and a half years

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The relatively low cost second-generation photovoltaic (PV) panels will have many civil as well as military applications and converts sunlight directly into electricity.

The Engineering News reported Saturday that Sasol, a co-investor in the project, Friday announced the “development phase” for a commercial-scale project should begin in Germany next month.

The head of the JSE-listed group’s new energy unit, Henri Loubser, confirmed that the facility would be established in Paarl, in the Western Cape, and would have a capacity to produce 40 MW of the copper-indium-gallium-diselenide (CIGS) modules yearly.

The Engineering News adds CIGS has material cost advantages over PV solutions based on crystalline silicon.

South Africa’s State-owned Central Energy Fund, Sasol, the University of Johannesburg (UJ) and the National Empowerment Fund are pursuing the South African project jointly as a public-private partnership (PPP). The European Investment Bank has also lent �40-million to PPP to support the construction of the local PV production facility.

Sasol has a 40% interest in the start-up PV enterprise.

“We are confident that the development phase of the project will kick off in December,” Loubser said, adding that Sasol was sending a team to Germany during November to facilitate the final agreements for the programme.

The development phase is expected to continue for between 12 months and 18 months. Thereafter, the facility will be relocated from Germany to South Africa in a project that could take another 12 months to complete.

News of the advances in the South African project comes as MiaSol�, a US manufacturer of CIGS thin-film PV modules, has announced that it has started shipping its CIGS thin-film modules from its California production facility.

In a press statement issued in mid-November, CEO Dr Joseph Laia reported that it had shipped modules to 30 customer sites in Germany, Italy, Spain, France, Portugal and various locations in the US. “We now have commercial projects in the ground, under development and on the drawing board,” Laia said.

Sasol’s Loubser acknowledged the growing competitive pressures surrounding PV, but said that the South African investors were confident that the development phase would prove that the technology was indeed cost and efficiency competitive.

The other second-generation thin-film solutions emerging were amorphous-silicon panels and cadmium-telluride units. Further, there was much work is going into so-called third-generation solutions, which could reduce costs further and improve efficiencies up to 40%. The efficiency of the current systems is between 8% and 20%.

The South African CIGS solution has been advanced by Vivian Alberts, a professor in the department of physics at UJ, and a patent was filed in 2003.

Land had been procured in the Western Cape for the new PV facility, while a German company was producing and testing the production machinery at a facility in Brandenburg (near Berlin).

A R12-million pilot production facility was commissioned in March 2006 but work was now required to prove commercial-scale production.

“The moment that the technology step has been proven . . . then the equipment, which was erected in Germany, will be moved to Paarl, and expanded in capacity,” Loubser said.

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