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Stellenbosch team close to unveiling solar power breakthrough

Critics of renewable energy say that it’s all about two things: cost and consistency of supply. You can’t generate solar electricity at night, they say, and they dispute international figures that suggest energy from solar power can be produced at the same price as fossil fuels, and given falling oil prices right now they might be right.

Stellenbosch University’s Paul Gauché believes he’s found a way to reduce the cost of solar power generation even further, and make storage cost effective too. His team has is making international healdlines today thanks to their work on a project called Helio100, which will be unveiled at the SolarPACES 2015 event in Cape Town in October. According to Gauché, the system will be easy to build and deploy, which should bring prices down once it goes into production.

Helio100 was featured in the Mail&Guardian this weekend, and in the UK’s Guardian today.

Helio100  is based on Concentrated Solar Power (CSP), which uses mirrors to focus the sun’s rays on a central point usually filled with liquid or metals that can be boiled or melted by the heat. These are then used to either drive a generator or operate heat exchangers – MTN’s main data centre in Johannesburg is cooled entirely by a CSP system on the roof, and there are large scale deployments of CSP in the Eastern Cape. The advantage of CSP over photovoltaic panels, which generate electricity directly from sunlight, is that the heated material can also act as a storage facility for the sun’s power – hence the potential cost savings on both fronts.

Helio100, the uniquely South Africa design makes use of smaller, smarter and modular heliostats – the mirrors used to focus energy – to overcome the huge expenses associated with other heliostat or CSPs.

“The Solar Thermal Energy Research Group (STERG) at Stellenbosch University has been developing a unique South African CSP technology. CSP is able to provide dispatchable, clean energy at utility scale, with the added benefit of high localisation potential and socio-economic beneficiation,” the official website states.

Gauché told The Guardian in the UK that the model that they are currently working on (which is still in its prototype phase) will be able to work without having to dig large holes or using concrete to keep it in place – making it ideal for rural areas.

“We are developing plonkable heliostats. Plonkable means that from factory to installation you can just drop them down on to the ground and they work. Every part in it is manufacturable and installable by two sets of hands, or one rugby player as we found out,” he said.

The Helio100 pilot project will form part of a facility being built within the TIA Helio100 technology development project – generating 150 Kilowatts (kW) of power in total.

The pilot project is expected to be completed by the end of the year, but Gauché will be showing off the Helio100 at SolarPACES 2015 in Cape Town in October.

[Via – The Guardian, image – CC Jim Sher]

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