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South Africa Will Use Solar Power to Fight Climate Change

In a couple of past posts I’ve criticized plans made by the South African government and World Bank to build some of the planet’s largest coal plants in South Africa—thereby dramatically increasing the country’s contribution to climate change. But give credit where credit is due: last week South Africa announced plans to also build the world’s largest solar energy park, which by 2020 will produce five gigawatts of electricity. This is an encouraging sign South Africa sees the need to reduce dependence on coal. If successful, the giant solar park may serve as a model for countries around the world to replicate.

Over 90% of South Africa’s electricity generation now comes from burning coal, and the nation is far and away the largest contributor to climate change in Africa. Yet like most developing countries, South Africa understandably wants to be able to generate more electricity to power homes and industry and increase the reliability of its grid. By 2020, South Africa’s energy department recommends increasing energy generation by forty gigawatts to accomplish these goals. Prospects for the climate will be grim if all or most of this electricity comes from coal. For South Africa to improve its grid while minimizing climate change, the country will need to invest substantially in renewable resources.

Fortunately South Africa has large renewable resources. The province of Northern Cape, where the newly-unveiled solar park will be located, is one of the sunniest places on the planet and has a climate ideally suited to generate solar power. Because the province has a relatively small population, there is plenty of room for a solar farm of mammoth proportions. Nine thousand hectares have been set aside so far, with the likelihood that more land will be added over time. The project could be producing one gigawatt of electricity as soon as 2012, and five times that amount by 2020.

Of course this is still just a fraction of the amount by which South Africa plans to expand electricity generation. One really good renewable energy project doesn’t make up for building some of the world’s largest coal plants—particularly when these fossil fuel plants have not been convincingly shown to benefit low-income ratepayers. But the sooner this quickly growing economy starts investing in large renewable energy projects, the more likely it is South Africa can change the terms of its long relationship with coal. The new solar park’s project manager, Jonathan de Vries, predicts that if this project is successful it will spur the government to invest in more solar farms.

De Vries is also quoted citing climate change and the need to reduce carbon emissions as one reason South Africa should shift from coal to solar power. This is one more sign residents of the country are increasingly aware of the role South Africa plays in combating climate change. It’s too soon to tell yet if the new solar farm marks a real sea change in the South African government’s acceptance of its climate obligations. But this week’s news that one of the world’s most coal-dependent economies will build the biggest solar power project on the planet is certainly an encouraging sign.

Article by Nick Engelfried, appearing courtesy Justmeans.