Race to­wards a brave new world

As the Sa­sol So­lar Chal­lenge races across the na­tion, ques­tions arise about whether SA is any closer to a so­lar­pow­ered fu­ture

Mail & Guardian - - News - Sarah Smit

The floor of the hall ad­join­ing the DP de Vil­liers Sta­dium in Sa­sol­burg is crawl­ing with brown ants, which de­liver sting­ing bites to the an­kles of any­one stand­ing still for long enough. It’s the dry Septem­ber heat that drives them in­doors.

Out­side, a mini sand­storm is rag­ing — raised by the so­lar cars com­pet­ing in the 2018 Sa­sol So­lar Chal­lenge as they make their way into the small Free State town. The drivers emerge ev­ery now and then from the toy-like cars, their rac­ing suits cling­ing to the sweat be­neath.

The chal­lenge, which started last Satur­day and runs for a week, in­volves nine teams from around the world com­pet­ing to cover the long­est dis­tance be­tween Pre­to­ria and Stel­len­bosch. On a route wind­ing through the Free State and the East­ern Cape, the drivers and their teams ne­go­ti­ate the in­evitable tech­ni­cal tri­als brought on by an in­con­sis­tent sun.

Sa­sol­burg is the first stop in this gru­elling ex­cur­sion. But its sta­dium, and main at­trac­tion, is near empty.

“We put up a big ban­ner out­side. We put pam­phlets all around the town,” says Jaco van der Westhuizen, his only leg jut­ting out in front of him from his wheel­chair.

Van der Westhuizen has lived in Sa­sol­burg for 36 years, hav­ing spent most of those years work­ing at Sa­sol af­ter which the town is named.

De­spite his 25 years at one of South Africa’s largest coal-min­ing com­pa­nies, a so­lar-pow­ered fu­ture is some­thing Van der Westhuizen looks for­ward to. “What we’re do­ing now is very bad for the world,” he says solemnly.

Though the coun­try is still largely re­liant on coal-gen­er­ated en­ergy, in April the depart­ment of en­ergy signed agree­ments with 27 in­de­pen­dent power pro­duc­ers (IPPs) — mark­ing a R56-bil­lion govern­ment in­vest­ment in re­new­able en­ergy. The coun­try’s grad­ual turn to re­new­able en­ergy is ex­em­pli­fied by the grow­ing pro­vi­sion of off-grid en­ergy sources, such as so­lar en­ergy, to low­cost hous­ing.

A 2018 Sta­tis­tics South Africa re­port shows that, of the coun­try’s 213 mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties, 22 pro­vided free so­lar elec­tric­ity sys­tems to about 113200 house­holds. Some of these so­lar pan­els peek through the ter­rain as you pass the out­skirts of small­town South Africa on the route of the so­lar chal­lenge.

Vet­eran so­lar car en­thu­si­ast Pro­fes­sor John Storey says that, at the first so­lar chal­lenge in Aus­tralia in 1987, this would have been a rare sight.

“At that stage, ba­si­cally no­body had so­lar pan­els on their houses and there we were putting them on cars,” he says.

On these cars, a so­lar panel con­verts sun­light into elec­tric­ity. That elec­tric­ity can ei­ther go di­rectly to the mo­tor to drive the car or be stored in a bat­tery, the physi­cist ex­plains. He adds that a lot of the strat­egy that goes into the chal­lenge is in man­ag­ing this stored en­ergy.

It is de­signed to be dif­fi­cult. “You’re con­stantly forced to deal with chal­lenges that you can’t nec­es­sar­ily fore­see,” Storey says, his Aus­tralian ac­cent now not out of place in Sa­sol­burg.

The first ma­jor chal­lenge for the teams comes on the first night as the dry heat gives way to a thun­der­storm that, ru­mour has it, ends up blow­ing off 20 roofs in Kroon­stad.

One team, from the Tsh­wane Univer­sity of Tech­nol­ogy (TUT), has to re­build its cock­pit and so­lar ar­ray overnight, af­ter dam­ag­ing them in an ac­ci­dent on the last stretch be­tween Kroon­stad and Sa­sol­burg.

Their car, Sun­chaser III, fin­ished the first leg be­hind the ac­com­plished in­ter­na­tional teams — Tokai from Ja­pan and Nuon from the Nether­lands — which both clocked the same num­ber of kilo­me­tres.

The team is still deal­ing with the dam­age a day later in Eden­burg, a dusty town 80km south of Bloem­fontein. Bon­gani Mal­a­bele and Gift Khon­gota sit with their fin­gers lodged un­com­fort­ably be­tween the wing and the body of the car.

Mal­a­bele ex­plains that, dur­ing the ac­ci­dent, the car lost its wing mech­a­nism so they have to use their fin­gers as a hinge.

Mal­a­bele is a driver, but he and Khon­gota also worked on build­ing the body of the car from car­bon fi­bre.

Grow­ing up, the mecha­tronic en­gi­neer­ing stu­dent fixed bi­cy­cles. He started when he was about ten years old in his home­town of Bush­buck­ridge in Mpumalanga. This is where the dream of one day be­com­ing an en­gi­neer was sparked.

Soon the team is off again.

In­side the van that sup­ports the so­lar car, the heat dis­tills a dis­tinctly mas­cu­line odour.

Mal­a­bele falls asleep al­most im­me­di­ately to the sound of team leader Jo­hannes de Vries — called “me­neer” by the team — ra­dio­ing in direc­tions to the driver fol­low­ing close be­hind.

Male­bele’s knees are sore from driv­ing and an­other team­mate has taken the wheel to­day.

But, sit­ting next to him, David Scholfield re­marks that it’s all worth it: “More peo­ple have been to space than have driven a so­lar car,” he says.

It’s cloudy out, a fact the team has to weigh up in con­sid­er­ing how far to travel to­day.

De Vries points out that this is ex­actly the weather that gal­lium ar­senide — the ma­te­rial used in mak­ing Nuon’s so­lar panel — thrives in. It can cost thou­sands of dol­lars to make a strip about 20cm in di­am­e­ter, com­pared with the $5 it takes to make the same strip in sil­i­con, the ma­te­rial used by most teams.

This is just one of the many ad­van­tages the Dutch and some of the other in­ter­na­tional teams have over South Africa. The highly reg­i­mented Nuon and Tokai are in a class of their own — some South African teams can’t even try to keep up.

Sa­sol’s in­volve­ment as the main spon­sor of the chal­lenge is not nec­es­sar­ily an in­di­ca­tion of their switch to re­new­able en­ergy.

Sa­sol group mar­ket­ing man­ager Nozipho Mbatha tells the Mail & Guardian that the rea­son the com­pany has put so much money into the chal­lenge is to get more peo­ple into en­gi­neer­ing.

“Sa­sol is one of the big­gest em­ploy­ers of en­gi­neers in the coun­try. They’re the ones that feel it the hard­est when we don’t have peo­ple study­ing en­gi­neer­ing,” says the founder of the South African so­lar chal­lenge, Win­stone Jor­daan.

The com­pany has re­cently been hit by strike ac­tion, sparked by Sa­sol Khany­isa, a broad-based black eco­nomic em­pow­er­ment scheme in­tended to pro­vide fi­nan­cial ben­e­fits to 230000 black pub­lic share­hold­ers and work­ers. Trade union Sol­i­dar­ity, which rep­re­sents mostly white work­ers — many of whom are en­gi­neers — has called the scheme dis­crim­i­na­tory.

Jor­daan stresses the im­por­tance of cre­at­ing an al­to­gether new work­force. He scoffs at the idea that South Africa’s move to­wards re­new­able en­ergy will cost jobs, a con­cern raised by trade unions in the wake of En­ergy Min­is­ter Jeff Radebe’s IPP deal.

Lungile Nt­shu­lana, a mem­ber of the Cape Penisula Univer­sity of Tech­nol­ogy (CPUT) team, un­der­stands this con­cern. “There is a huge pos­si­bil­ity that many mines will have to shut down once peo­ple re­alise that the sun never runs out,” he says.

Sit­ting on the edge of the Gariep Dam, he talks about the tri­als the CPUT So­lar Fly­ers have faced in try­ing to get their car on the road. The chal­lenge is al­most half­way through and their car has yet to be de­clared road­wor­thy.

Un­like Nuon, which has been work­ing full-time on their car for more than a year, CPUT had to put their car to­gether in un­der a month. The team only heard about the chal­lenge in July and still had to wait for their fund­ing to come through be­fore ac­tu­ally be­ing able to work on the body of the car. A so­lar car can cost mil­lions to get on the road.

Wait­ing for the rest of the TUT team to ar­rive at the con­trol stop in Eden­burg is Daisy Nesin­dande.

Nesin­dande talks with her hands, her short nails re­veal­ing thin sliv­ers of dirt. The only woman on her team, she draws at­ten­tion to her nails as proof that she is one of the boys.

“You know how it is,” she says re­fer­ring to the marked gen­der dis­par­i­ties in her field — keenly felt at a chal­lenge in which not many women take part.

From the side­lines, Jor­daan ad­mits that trans­for­ma­tion has been slow.

“But the key is to get peo­ple started,” he says.

Sunny side up: Bon­gani Mal­a­bele leaves Bloem­fontein for Eden­burg ahead of the loop stage of the Sa­sol So­lar Chal­lenge.

Feel the heat: Teams pre­pare to set off from Sun Times Square in Pre­to­ria (above). Tsh­wane Univer­sity of Tech­nol­ogy stu­dent Daisy Nesin­dande (right) ex­plains so­lar cars to pupils. Pho­tos: Waldo Swiegers and Brett Eloff

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