Thin solar technology commercialised in South Africa

I was delighted to read in the South African Mail and Guardian this morning that a public-private partnership between the University of Johannesburg and several other partners (Sasol, the Central Energy Fund (CEF), the National Empowerment Fund and the University of Johannesburg) are working on a plant to commercialise thin-film technology in South Africa. The new technology is known as Thin Film Solar panels, and consists of micro-thin metallic film (only 5 microns thick) that converts light into energy at a fraction of a cost of the current Photovoltaic technology. Germany is a global leader in micro-film technology due to its huge investments into alternative energy technology, and the equipment needed to make the Thin Film Solar modules will be imported from Germany to the Western Cape province to establish a production facility in Paarl.

This is great news for several reasons. Firstly, researchers at Stellenbosch university are also working hard on new solar technology, thus creating a regional technology cluster effects (click here and here for more information). But perhaps the timing of this announcement is more important, as it coincides with the announcement that Escom wants to increase its energy prices by 45% for the next three years. At the moment, solar panels are still extremely expensive in South Africa.

A Google search for “thin film solar” found several sites that explained the technology, and it seems that similiar technologies have been commercialised elsewhere. It was not possible for me to determine whether the South African design differed than the technology described on Wikipedia.

South Africa have other reasons than our electricity shortage and price increases to invest in new climate friendly technology. Not only do we have to worry about our environment, but alternative energy could assist in overcoming the costs of connecting rural households to the grid. But at the moment the costs of alternative energy in South Africa is still very high. I cannot wait for the day that I can disconnect from the mainline power grid for environmental and cost reasons! Bring on the technology!!!!

This blog post was inspired by an article in the Mail and Guardian online, the original article can be found at  http://www.mg.co.za/article/2009-10-13-sas-thinfilm-solar-tech-at-commercial-stage

Understanding technology for climate change better

I received a book on climate change last year for my birthday called Ten Technologies to Save the Planet. It was a bit odd to receive this gift, as I don’t consider myself to be a tree-hugger. But my friend explained that this book will change my life and answer the many questions that I’ve been asking about how developing countries can engage in climate technology.

Chris Goodall, is a businessman and author of several books on climate change, including Ten technologies to save the planet. Ten Technologies To Save the PlanetThe book is divided into ten chapters, with each chapter focusing on a range of different technologies that are either developed or being developed to address a specific issue. For instance, there is a chapter on wind power that explains the existing technologies available today to utilise the energy created by the wind. There is also a chapter on alternative fuels that also explain and compare the different feedstock that are available for the production of biofuels.

Unfortunately the book does not deal with issues pertaining to economic development. For instance, I wonder how the global environmental and climate technology revolution that is driven by pro-environmental policies in Europe is going to put European and US manufacturers into the next “industrial revolution” while Africa is still a revolution or two behind?  I also wonder how the new climate market systems where companies can trade carbon credits can be used to get developing regions into the global market system. For instance, we have a lot of sunshine and a shortage of electricity generation capacity in South Africa. How can we solve this problem using some of the carbon credits or off-sets of European firms?

But this book is a must-read for development practitioners that are constantly confronted by dreamers who want to become rich or develop industry through investments into “amazing bio-fuel products”. It is now on the top 10 of my favourite books ever. I cannot wait to assess the next value chain for opportunities to reduce energy consumption or to identify opportunities for manufacturing firms to become competitive through better climate technology applications.

Read more about the book on Wikipedia, or visit the Carbon Commentry website where more information on Chris Goodall and issues around Carbon can be found.

I have uploaded all three the books by Chris Goodall onto the mesopartner store at Amazon.

Climate technology for competitiveness

Following the calls and e-mails I received based on the previous post, I thought it might be a good idea to expand on the idea of how climate technology could be used to increase the competitiveness of industry and of certain locales. By the way, you are welcome to share your ideas by commenting and uploading pictures on the blog directly!

What do I mean with “climate technology”? Climate technology refer to the many technologies that are now being developed out there, with well-known examples of solar geysers, solar panels and windfarms. But there are many other technologies that are being developed that range from insulations for homes and offices, to home electricity and heat generation. If you dig deeper, then you find that many industries are now becoming aware that they are using electricity to generate heat, and then using electricity to cool things down again (Have they never heard of heat conversion?). So people are generally becoming aware that if they can use less energy to produce a product, that they will ultimately be saving costs and saving the planet.

There are many forces for change other than the riots, protests and bickering at international conferences about the climate. Last week the first supermarket chain in South Africa was certified as emission free, with several large retailers like  Massmart, Woolworths and Marks and Spencer in the process of assessing their emission footprint. These retail chains are now starting to assess how their COMPLETE supply chains are dealing with the environment.They are not only looking at their consumer goods, but also at their total operation. This is just one way that value chain promotion and climate technology is related.

What do I mean with climate technology as a means to increase the competitiveness of industries? Let me first create a picture of the South African manufacturing environment. In general, our manufacturers are losing out to more productive and lower cost Asian producers. But the South African manufacturing industry is still world class in many fields and in many advanced production methods, especially in shorter niche production runs. Furthermore, despite the brain drain that has affected the economy, South Africa still has a rich expert base in diverse technological fields ranging from electronics, metals, to chemicals and all the way to nuclear research. Compared to many other developing countries there is a rich institutional layer (ranging from research institutes to specialised tertiary institutions) that is supporting the private sector.

I believe that we should be actively mobilising the South African manufacturing sector into climate technology, as the international pressure on industries, government and consumers will only increase in the future. Many of these different users of technology are going to start making decisions not only the utility of the product that they are purchasing, but they will increasingly assess the environmental footprint of the product. Furthermore, industries that adopt climate friendly technology are reducing costs in new ways, increasing their cost and brand competitiveness.

Locales or places that start to promote climate technology might be able to get a headstart on other regions, and there are many places where the scale of environmental or climate pollution could actually be used to start completely new climate technology research and development capacity. I can think of the very sensitive waterlands in the Chrissiesmeer region in Mpumalanga province in South Africa that is under threat from coal mining as an example of an area that could provide a critical incentive for the development of a new industry of climate technology producers and service providers (see feature on the Carte Blanche investigative journalism programme).  The demand for this kind of technology is there, yet the environmental lobby is still trying in vain to fight industry.

But there are several obstacles, and the first is the limited economies of scale. If the cost of researching and developing new technology is set aside, then costs of finding potential customers (search costs)  or applications for new technology is high, and the scale of return is uncertain. Therefore investors are hesitant to enter many market segments. With Southern Africa’s tendency to perform well in small scale and specialised production the risk is lower, if only the producers could identify the right market opportunities. But government and development practitioners would have to play a critical role in supporting this new marketplace, and often public funds is needed to get this kind of initiative off the ground. The current policy obsession with benificiation and final product manufacturing is in my view misguided, and should focus on the strength of the South African industry to develop advanced niche technologies.

Secondly, I get the feeling that many people think that this interest in climate technology and the environment is a fad that will go away. Help, any ideas out there?

Lastly, as development practitioners we must get business, governments and households to understand that using new climate friendly technology save costs for the society on some new fronts. There is more to it than just saving the planet (although that is a good enough reason), it could also mean increasing the cost competitiveness of a company. It could mean smarter ways of doing thing, like finding ways to generate electricity and heat at a home or a business, instead of digging up roads and building coal fired power stations.

So when you conduct your next value chain assessment, ask yourself how the different links in the chain could benefit from technology that is climate friendly. Look at places where heat, steam, chemicals or other byprodycts are generated that may be of value to somebody else.

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