HomeIndustry SectorsEnergy EfficiencyTechnology: South Africa develops fuel cell mini-grid

Technology: South Africa develops fuel cell mini-grid

fuel cell mini grid
Field trial of the fuel cell mini-grid launched in August 2014 at the Kroonstad Naledi Trust Community in South Africa. Pic credit: Charlotte Mathews

Anglo American Platinum in partnership with Ballard Power Systems is developing a next generation fuel cell product, which forms the core of a power system that is capable of supplying 230V AC electricity through a mini-grid. The system is suitable for charging electronic devices, television, radio, electric lighting, refrigeration and cooking to households.

Increase rate of rural electrification

Powered by liquid methanol fuel, the fuel cell mini-grid technology is an economically competitive alternative to extending grid transmission lines for rural communities located far away from the existing grid. It is expected that the technology will be cost-competitive with diesel generators and PV mini-grid systems for rural communities.

Speaking at a stakeholder engagement workshop hosted by Anglo American Platinum, the director of the Institute for African Alternatives Professor Ben Turok highlighted the gap that exists in the market to power rural communities.

Turok said:“The window of opportunity for fuel cells as an alternative technology for South Africa is now – grid capacity constraints, rising costs and long lead times for electrifying deep rural areas make non-grid fuel cell technology ideal.

“Over and above socio-economic benefits of access to power for rural upliftment, establishment of a local fuel cell industry develops new skills and creates jobs, in line with objectives of the National Development Plan.”

He added:“The fuel cell mini grid offers significant advantages in low to medium density communities between 50 and 200 homes which are more than 22km away from the existing grid.”

Technology offers electricity, jobs and economic growth

The local deployment of fuel cell technology will enable the establishment of a new manufacturing industry creating a new technology sector in the country, supporting beneficiation, providing an opportunity for export of value-added product into other emerging markets and driving additional demand for platinum.

The creation of a fuel cell value chain creates jobs in power system manufacturing and installation, methanol fuel supply, operation and maintenance.

Speaking at the workshop, Kleantha Pillay, Anglo American Platinum’s head of market development, explained: “The development and commercialisation of platinum-based fuel cell technology is also aimed at increasing the demand for platinum mined in South Africa, ensuring sustainable markets for the country’s metals.”

Further to this, Ballard’s vice president of business development, Karim Kassam said:“Our participation at this [workshop] clearly demonstrates Ballard’s commitment to the advancement of fuel cell commercialization in South Africa.

“It has been an honour to speak alongside Professor Turok, and we look forward to progressing the rural electrification programme in South Africa, in partnership with Anglo American Platinum.”

Test project keeps the lights on

In August 2014, a fuel cell mini-grid field trial was launched at the Naledi Trust Community in Kroonstad, South Africa, which continues to power up a total of 34 households through the fuel cell system.

The fuel cell mini-grids is capable of expanding when energy demand increases and provide full-time power availability since the power is produced whenever needed. Another opportunity is in mini-grid infrastructure leveraged for subsequent grid connection in future.

Nicolette Pombo-van Zyl
As the Editor of ESI Africa, my passion is on sustainability and placing African countries on the international stage. I take a keen interest in the trends shaping the power & water utility market along with the projects and local innovations making headline news. Watch my short weekly video on our YouTube channel ESIAfricaTV and speak with me on what has your attention.