We had the pleasure this week to experience hands-on the largest single rooftop solar installation in Africa, generating 542.4kW power. The impressive “White House’ Vodacom office building in Century City, Cape Town had all of 3600m² of roof tiles removed and replaced by solar panels.
The installation of the solar array is part of Vodacom’s ongoing drive to help reduce the amount of energy the company consumes. It is expected to provide up to 75% of all electricity power required by the building during peak production.
The free solar electricity produced feeds into two main distribution boards. On a display screen in the reception area of the building we could see every minute how much power is generated this way, and what the savings are in terms of carbon emissions. Making this process visible is certainly inspiring.
“Vodacom recently became a voluntary signatory to the Energy Efficiency Leadership Network, which aims to help improve energy efficiency in South Africa. This commitment complements our existing environmental and sustainability efforts to reduce carbon emissions within the organisation by 5% per annum until 2014,” said Vodacom’s Chief Officer: Corporate Affairs, Maya Makanjee.
Saving 744 tons of CO2 per year
The predicted annual energy yield of the array is 744MWh, which translates into a savings of 744 tons of CO2 every year. This is the predicted annual amount of energy generated by the array – equivalent to the energy required to burn 6750 x 14W compact fluorescent lamps 24 hours per day for a year, or to charge more than 70 million cell phones annually (based on 4.5W charger x 2.5 hours charge time = 11.25Wh) which is equal to more than 200,000 cell phones per day (based on 1 charge per day per phone) The predicted 20 year energy yield is 15.202GWh.
She also said that the Vodafone group had set the target to reduce their overall CO2 emissions by 50% by 2020 and by 20% by 2015! “We took this on, because we believe that to have a true impact on our society and on our planet, Vodacom must do all that it can to build a business that is philosophically focused on being sustainable.”
Even though the company would benefit from vast cost savings due to tapping solar energy, this is not their main motivation, she said during the opening. “We are doing this as it’s the right thing to do.”
Business leadership in energy solutions
“Through this particular project Vodacom aims to demonstrate that business can take the lead in promoting renewable energy solutions, thereby stimulating the green economy,” Makanjee said.
As part of Vodacom’s commitment to socio-economic development local Small, Medium and Microenterprises (SMMEs) were appointed to install the solar panels and do the construction work required. The appointment of local SMMEs also provided the opportunity for skills transfer due to the scale of the project and the limited number of skilled technicians that were available to complete the task.
The solar panels were supplied and installed by SolarWorld, with distribution partners In-Toto Solutions and engineering support from WPS Consulting. The solar electricity system, which has pitched and flat roof sections installed over a 3600m² area, uses SolarWorld’s roof integrated Sundeck ® pitched roof mounting structure and the Suntub ® flat roof mounting structure.
Roof tiles to local community
Vodacom also made it a prerequisite for product suppliers to provide training on the technical elements of the installation. Hence a German engineer was flown out to provide on-the-job training to locals.
In keeping with Vodacom’s commitment to investment in local communities, all the roof tiles that were removed were donated to a community centre project in the Delft area, ensuring that the roof tiles were re-used.
We enquired after the cost and payback period of a project of this magnitude. “The project was done at the cost of R10 million, but it will also incur savings of R1 million per year. This, together with the ESCOM rebate, means that the project will be paid off in 5.5 years, said Mr Gregor Küpper.
Solar energy possible for all of us now
I was keen to know how relevant this payback period would be to domestic installations. Because the economy of scale benefits larger installations, home installations would now take about 7 years to pay off with the energy savings on your ESCOM bills, he said. This scenario is now becoming very attractive as the ESCOM electricity tariff increases, together with a drop in the price of solar panels, makes this a cost effective option.
Due to the City of Cape Town’s restrictions, no power will be fed back into the grid, but the system will run in parallel with the utility supply in order to effect maximum demand reductions and energy savings whenever this is available from the array.
To date, Vodacom has also reduced the energy inputs per base station across the Vodacom Group by retrofitting base stations with free cooling, thereby making them more energy efficient.
Great inspiration for others to follow
“Through this initiative and other innovative energy saving projects, Vodacom intends taking the lead in trying to reduce dependency on conventional energy sources, and it is our hope that other companies follow suit. We also want our customers to learn from our example and to become more aware of their own carbon footprint,” says Makanjee.
“We recognise that climate change is likely to result in profound consequences for the environment, for society and for our economy. As one of the world’s leading companies, we have a responsibility to minimise our carbon emissions. This is why we made the commitment to reduce the impact of our own operations and to develop products and services for customers which may help them to reduce theirs.”
I returned from this function with reinforced hope for the future. Not only am I super excited to get our home/office off the grid – who doesn’t want to tap free energy from the sun and no longer feel at the mercy of unreliable energy suppliers? With powerful corporates taking real responsibility and real action to mitigate their very serious footprints, we might just be able to change the destructive course of history. It also means that one of the cellular networks we rely on is working with us in the fight for a sustainable future.