Developing Solar PV Plants in South Africa – Lessons from Letsatsi and Lesedi

Submitted by: Jean McKenzie, Thursday, December 11, 2014

In May 2014 Letsatsi and Lesedi 75 MWp solar PV plants started full commercial operation.  The two plants are owned by a consortium made up of SolarReserve, the Kensani Group, Intikon Energy and Old Mutual and were part of the first round of South Africa’s Renewable Energy Independent Power Producer Programme (REIPPPP).  As part of the REIPPP the two projects, costing jointly approximately R4-billion, have a 20 year power purchase agreement with Eskom for purchase of the electricity generated. 

The most significant achievement of these projects was that both were completed on time and on budget, and even began delivering power before their anticipated commercial operation date, says Dr Gregory Starke, Chief Operating Officer of the Kensani Group. Speaking to Urban Earth about the Kensani Group’s experiences in the construction and management of the Lesedi and Letsatsi plants, Starke explains that having commercial lenders which are uncompromising about delivery and deadlines provides a good motivation for projects to be completed on time and without overspend.

As Starke notes, the REIPPPP projects are generally very complicated involving multiple parties and so during the bid phase of the project the major challenges were related to coordinating all the parties and the project requirements and ensuring the legal compliance. Addressing the challenges the projects faced during the construction phase, Starke explains that it was difficult carrying out a project in a remote area with large scale solar PV technology being new to South Africa and the skills still in a development phase. “Our international contractors (ACS Cobra), however had the skills to work through these issues and got the job done on time. They know what they are doing in terms of running big projects,” he says.  

Starke believes that also developing local contracting skills now that the REIPPPP is up and running is essential.  “I would want to see us using projects like these to build the skills base locally going forward which would also create jobs. It would really be nice to see increasing involvement of South African firms who could learn to build these projects, create the technology, create the skills, and create the capital base,” he says.

About 50 people make up the Operations and Management team for Lesedi and Letatsi now that they are functioning plants. This includes unskilled labour for tasks such as cleaning of the panels as well as electricians for repairs and maintenance. The panels are normally cleaned three times a year unless there is a dust storm in which case an unscheduled cleaning is required. Little further human intervention for the plant operation is required as the panels are at a fixed angle of 30° and no tracking is involved. The sites are monitored from Bloemfontein by a consortium of Spanish company Gransolar, ACS Cobra and Kensani using a Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) system. The reports generated from the monitoring are provided to Eskom and other stakeholders

Since the start of operation in May the projects have been performing above expectation because, as Starke explains, these were some of the first large scale solar PV projects in the country and the prediction models for performance were conservative. The model which the bank funding decision is made on is particularly conservative, having a 90% confidence limit. However only after a reasonable period of operation will it be possible to fully assess performance. To date no non-operating days have been experienced and the plants have produced at least some power every day, though the amount of power can drop significantly on a cloudy and rainy day to under 10% of the plant’s capacity.

The Department of Energy has been progressing well introducing renewable energy into the country’s electricity generation mix through the REIPPP programme Starke believes. “They are doing a great job so our advice to the Department of Energy going forward would be to extend and broaden the programme as much as possible,” he says.

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Jean McKenzie