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RENEWABLES The future of PV technology Most of the early grid tied photovoltaic power projects in South Africa are using crystalline silicone based modules, which dominate the industry, accounting for some 90% of the total installed. However, arguments can be made in favour of thin film technologies. T he case in general for photovoltaic (PV) generated energy has grown, since its prices have become competitive with conventional energy sources. While having the drawback of intermittency based on when the sun shines, PV energy is more price predictable than that from fuels such as gas, and once installed operating costs are low. Companies and utilities are including solar PV into their mix to balance their power generation portfolios and to mitigate fuel price volatility. Gas and oil producing countries themselves see their hydrocarbons as being worth more when exported or converted to value-added products than when consumed domestically at subsidised rates. Thus they seek substitution, and many of these countries are rich in sunlight. Africa has begun to pay attention to this technology because the continent has some of the highest levels of solar irradiation on the planet. This is in comparison with Germany which has the highest installed capacity of solar PV but some of the lowest irradiation levels. It cannot be overemphasised how much this trend has been driven by solar PV having experienced dramatic cost improvements over the past few years. Interestingly, it was US based integrated PV group and thin film module producer, First Solar, which manufactures cadmium-telluride (CdTe) panels, that first broke the US$1/Watt barrier. CdTe, an alloy by-product from copper and zinc mining, does not display the toxic characteristics of elemental cadmium and has been certified safe for use by independent agencies. In a price comparison done by First Solar with other energy sources, the grid tied cost of its PV energy of between about US7c/kWh and 15c/kWh is lower than that of diesel sources, all above 20c/kWh, and peaking gas plants (that range from 20c/kWh to 38c/kWh), assuming gas prices as they stood in 2013 across Europe, the US, Australia and Japan. In comparison with base load options, its solar power was more cost competitive than combined cycle gas in Japan (15c/kWh to 20c/kWh), but less so than combined cycle gas in the US, which comes in at under 10c/kWh, showing the sensitivity of gas power to the price of fuel obtained. Energy from a First Solar PV system is relatively on a par with the cost of nuclear energy but more expensive than coal whose prices typically range from US4c/kWh to 8c/kWh. Overall, this is probably a fair assessment of the cost comparison of PV with other energy carriers as things stand. Joseph Kishkill, First Solar’s chief commercial officer, says that costs of PV systems will continue to decrease, though it may be an asymptotic reduction from now on. He says that at one point the cost of the panels amounted to 50% of the total for a PV facility, and this has come down to 20% or 30%. As a result companies are trying to drive down costs in the balance of system. “There are steps to integrate tracker mechanisms, and developers are trying to make gains by integration across components.” Apart from the technology perspective there is a focus on the The Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Solar Park, 50 km from Dubai in the UAE. ESI AFRICA ISSUE 1 2014 83