Star­ing at the sun: In­no­vat­ing so­lar en­ergy in South Africa

Finweek English Edition - - INSIDE - BY LISA ILLING­WORTH ed­i­to­rial@fin­week.co.za

“In­no­va­tion in Africa is com­pletely unique in na­ture com­pared to in­no­va­tion in Europe and the Amer­i­cas. It is driven by ne­ces­sity and a lack of re­sources. We have to keep things sim­ple – com­pli­cated things fall apart and to find new parts is prob­lem­atic, ex­pen­sive and takes up too much time. If we de­sign things ef­fec­tively yet sim­ply, we are able to fix them on the side of the road at four in the morn­ing, as we have done.”

This is the per­spec­tive of War­ren Hurter, the lead me­chan­i­cal en­gi­neer and project man­ager of the award­win­ning Univer­sity of Jo­han­nes­burg’s (UJ) so­lar ve­hi­cle project, af­fec­tion­ately named ‘ iLanga’, which means ‘ The Sun’ in isiZulu.

The project started in 2011 with the broad aims of in­flu­enc­ing en­ergy ef­fi­ciency and filling the crit­i­cal skills gap in the sci­ence, tech­nol­ogy, en­gi­neer­ing and math­e­mat­ics fields. It also brought on board com­mer­cial part­ners in the form of Eskom, Siemens and RS Com­po­nents.

In re­cent years, South African in­no­va­tions in so­lar-pow­ered ve­hi­cle tech­nol­ogy have been com­ing to the fore and tested in t he Sa­sol So­lar Chal­lenge. This an­nual race for so­lar­pow­ered ve­hi­cles, which is in­creas­ingly draw­ing in­ter­est from both par­tic­i­pants as well as mem­bers of the pub­lic, starts in Pre­to­ria and ends in Cape Town.

This year, the eight-day race saw a to­tal of 14 teams par­tic­i­pat­ing, of which six were univer­sity teams and two were school teams. With the kind of tech­nol­ogy be­ing used to power th­ese ve­hi­cles and the majority of it not be­ing avail­able lo­cally, what does it take for a team of en­gi­neers and crew to get to the point where they are ready to race the loops of up to 132km and climb up to 3km in al­ti­tude?

The so­lar move­ment at UJ hopes to make strides in en­ergy man­age­ment and skills de­vel­op­ment t hrough ed­u­ca­tion, and the ve­hi­cle cre­ates a visual rep­re­sen­ta­tion of how this can be achieved.

“Our in­volve­ment with the project is be­cause we can’t fold our arms and wait for oth­ers to de­velop the tal­ent i n en­gi­neer­ing. For our company, for our clients and for our coun­try, t hese i ni­tia­tives are crit­ica l ,” says Clif­ford Klaas, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of sus­tain­abil­ity and HR at Siemens.

RS Com­po­nents spon­sored parts worth mil­lions of rand that helped build, test and main­tain the ve­hi­cle. The company’s CEO Brian An­drew says: “Any­thing to support ed­u­ca­tion, skill de­vel­op­ment, R&D in the al­ter­na­tive en­ergy space and in the en­gi­neer­ing f ield is a huge bonus for us as we are re­ally pas­sion­ate about it. For all th­ese rea­sons we think the event re­ceived so much in­ter­est as this could mean a lot to South Africa over the long run.” UJ’si Langa and the most re­cent ver­sion, iLanga2, was de­signed and man­u­fac­tured un­der the univer­sity’s pri­vate de­vel­op­ment ini­tia­tive. Res­o­lu­tion Cir­cle is an in­de­pen­dent company over­seen by a board of direc­tors and is partly funded by the Na­tional Skills Fund and is the in­ter­face be­tween tech­nol­ogy, ed­u­ca­tion and in­dus­try.

Hurter says: “There is no com­mer­cial vi­a­bil­ity as yet, par­tic­u­larly in South Africa, where t he parts needed to cre­ate this kind of ve­hi­cle have to be i mported. We ran i nto some diff icult chal­lenges in sim­ply im­port­ing com­po­nents, where we were faced with im­port du­ties go­ing into the hun­dreds of thou­sands of rand, which was not orig­i­nally in the bud­get and had to go hat in hand to our spon­sors. This was on top of the cap­i­tal cost, which amounted to R4m just for the pan­els. The project to date has a value of about R40m and the most re­cent ve­hi­cle is close to R18m.”

The team from UJ fin­ished in f ifth place at the Sa­sol Chal­lenge this year, after crash­ing on the third day.

Next year, the UJ tea m un­der Hurter as lead en­gi­neer is plan­ning to take iLanga2 to Aus­tralia and race in the World So­lar Chal­lenge. This race will take place over a pe­riod of eight days and will see par­tic­i­pants race from Dar­win, through the out­back, to fin­ish in Ade­laide.

Hurter says: “Hope­fully we won’t face the same kind of lo­gis­ti­cal chal­lenges that faced us in the build-up to the Sa­sol Chal­lenge. Just or­der­ing parts from over­seas and get­ting them in time to pre­pare prop­erly seemed to be one of the big­gest is­sues that we faced. There was not enough time to test and pre­pare prop­erly due to Post Of­fice and metal work­ers strikes and get­ting parts through cus­toms.

“In­no­va­tion in Africa is so much tougher than in Europe or the Amer­i­cas be­cause of all the in­eff icient sys­tems in place and the ex­pense of im­port­ing parts that are not man­u­fac­tured lo­cally. There are world class skills but we spend an ex­or­bi­tant amount of time and money sourc­ing parts that aren’t made in South Africa.”

iLanga, the Univer­sity of Jo­han­nes­burg’s (UJ) so­lar

ve­hi­cle project

War­ren Hurter

UJ’s team

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