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Southern Africa Riding The SOLTRAIN To Solar Thermal Jobs

Southern Africa Riding The SOLTRAIN To Solar Thermal Jobs

Solar thermal energy projects are popping up around Southern Africa, and the largest potential for that market is solar thermal cooling, aka air conditioning.

All it will take for this market to bust wide open is a few solar entrepreneurs to tweak the cooling technology so its cost can come down.

Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Lesotho and Zimbabwe are all pursuing various forms of solar thermal energy sources. The Southern African Solar Thermal Training and Demonstration Initiative, or SOLTRAIN, partnered with research universities to support local manufacturers and solar technicians in growing their businesses by improving solar thermal technology and training the workforce.

While the SOLTRAIN project has helped promote underutilized solar thermal technology and training since 2009, the partner countries have moved into phase 2 of the project to further speed the deployment of solar thermal applications.

“SOLTRAIN 2 is going to fund 75 systems in South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Lesotho and Mozambique,” said Werner Weiss, managing director of the Austrian Institute for Sustainable Technologies and South Africa SOLTRAIN project leader, in an AFKInsider interview.

The Austrian Development Agency financed the solar thermal system projects during the first phase one of SOLTRAIN and has agreed to sponsor the phase two. Both phases are implemented by Austria’s Institute for Sustainable Technologies.

The ultimate goal is to contribute to the switch from fossil fuel to a sustainable energy supply. Up to 40 percent of the electricity used in the 15-member Southern Africa Development Community region is for domestic hot water preparation only, according to the Austrian Institute for Sustainable Technologies.


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But the immediate goal – as the name suggests – is to build up solar thermal training capacities in the participating countries, create new jobs at small and medium enterprises, and strengthen political support for solar thermal system use.

Demonstration Projects for Training

While solar photovoltaic creates electricity directly from sunlight, thermal solar power uses the sun’s energy to create heat. That heat can create steam to turn generators in large concentrated solar power (CSP) plants using acres of mirrors to concentrate the energy, such as those found in Spain, Italy and the deserts of California.

But on a smaller level, solar thermal energy is commonly used to heat water. According to the Global Solar Thermal Energy Council, “There is a wide variety of applications for solar thermal technology. The most common application is the heating of pool water, the heating of domestic hot water and space heating.”

Though it may sound counter intuitive, solar thermal energy can also be used to generate cool air without the need for electricity. While not very widespread yet, solar cooling technology is gaining a foothold in Europe. And for solar entrepreneurs, Africa is considered the holy grail of the solar thermal cooling market.

During the first phase, SOLTRAIN produced 60 demonstration projects for training course members. Those projects ranged from small systems with two-square-meter solar collectors to big pump systems with 192-square meter solar collectors. Forty-eight of these systems were installed at social institutions in South Africa, seven in Zimbabwe, three in Namibia and two in Mozambique.

With SOLTRAIN 2, more demonstration projects are underway, and they’re getting off the ground fast.

“By end of December 2013, a total of 19 applications, representing 33 demonstration systems were received by the Austrian Institute for Sustainable Technologies,” Weiss told AFKInsider. “After a technical quality check, 22 systems were approved and 16 of these systems are already installed.”

SOLTRAIN also established institutional centers of competence in each country to offer research and development, expert advice, training and technical support to local industry and policy makers. These are located at the Sustainable Energy Society of South Africa, Stellenbosch University, Namibia’s Polytechnic Institute, Mozambique’s Eduardo Mondlane University and N&M Logotech, and Zimbabwe’s Domestic Solar Heating.

South Africa Takes the Lead

South Africa has become the lead country among the SOLTRAIN partners for several reasons.

More than five years ago, the South African government launched its National Solar Water Heating Program with a goal of installing 1 million subsidized home solar-water heating systems for low-income households by 2014. Delays changed the target date to March 2015, but an additional 4 million solar systems are scheduled for installation through 2030.

In 2013, the city of Ekurhuleni in East Gauteng province won first prize in the national Greenest Municipality competition, taking home $342,465 in prize money. It was no fluke. In February 2011, the municipality approved $48 million to install solar water heaters for low-income households to cut their electric bills in an effort to ease poverty. Now Gauteng has a SOLTRAIN solar thermal flagship district within a 30 mile radius of the Centurion Gautrain station.

The purpose of solar thermal flagship districts is to showcase solar thermal technology at work to domestic, commercial and industrial interests. Application for SOLTRAIN’s solar thermal demonstration projects — and co-financing agreements — are accepted from solar thermal companies only if the project is a social or public institution located within a flagship district.

“Since the start of SOLTRAIN 2 we have received six applications,” Corli Leonard, South Africa’s Western Cape SOLTRAIN coordinator, told AFKInsider.

Leonard, who is with Stellenbosch University’s Center for Renewable and Sustainable Energy Studies, says four domestic hot water demonstration systems have already been installed, with a fifth in the process. The four finished projects include Huis Horison Employment Center for Disabled, Welverdiend Retirement Village, Bergridge Park Retirement Village and Rosedon House home for physically and mentally challenged adults.

According to the Sustainable Energy Society of Southern Africa, SOLTRAIN 2 flagships are triggering a total investment of more than $1.2 million in Southern Africa, of which more than $158,000 is made up of direct SOLTRAIN subsidies. Another $312,000 has been reserved for Mozambique, Namibia and Zimbabwe, with $62,000 allocated to demonstration projects at teaching facilities.

Zimbabwe SOLTRAIN Coordinator Anton Schwarzlmueller told AFKInsider he received five applications for Zimbabwe’s SOLTRAIN Solar Thermal Flagship District, which encompasses a 60 mile radius around the capital city of Harare.

Training the Workforce

In February, SOLTAIN experts gave a specialist workshop on solar heat for industrial applications at the University of Pretoria for people who had attended previous SOLTRAIN courses or who had experience with solar water heating systems in the participating countries. The “Train-the-Trainer” workshop was coordinated by the Sustainable Energy Society of Southern Africa to prepare the recipients to teach others in the solar industry.

Weiss told AFKInsider there will be several more Train-the-Trainer courses in 2014 and 2015.

A major components of SOLTRAIN is the creation of national and regional Solar Thermal Technology Platforms for participating countries, much like the creation of the European Commission’s technology platforms. These individual solar platforms will include all key solar industry stakeholders to help develop implementation plans for solar thermal power specific to the different needs of each country.

More important are plans to facilitate cross-border cooperation in the framework of each regional technology platform to encourage information exchange and cooperation between the participating countries.

“We are in the project definition phase at the moment,” Weiss told AFKInsider. “Most probably there will be another similar project in West Africa based on the SOLTRAIN concept.”

When SOLTRAIN 2 ends its three-year run in 2016, the hopes are that solar thermal power will have more acceptance by small and medium enterprises that can then expand solar water heating, cooling and the generation of electricity.

“We hope to build up a sustainable structure in the participating countries so that the centers of competence can survive on their own,” Weiss told AFKInsider. “After the mid-term evaluation in June 2014, we might discuss a phase 3 of SOLTRAIN.”

Gauteng SOLTRAIN Coordinator Dieter Holm said the five national thermal technology platforms are expected to continue after termination of SOLTRAIN 2.

“It will be wonderful if the momentum will be kept going and SOLTRAIN 3 will follow,” Western Cape SOLTRAIN coordinator Corli Leonard said.