Staring at the sun: Innovating solar energy in South Africa
“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