Hybrid solar-hydrogen fuel plants are being used to power rural and informal communities, providing reliable electricity and heat to those who are not connected to the national grid.  Leading research efforts on this, is the Vaal University of Technology Centre for Alternative Energy.

The power plants, based on solar powered hydrogen generation and a fuel cell, provide enough power for LED lighting and may well provide the solution for communities without electricity.  During the day, solar generated electricity will produce hydrogen, which will be stored in a low pressure tank. During the night, and at times when there is little solar radiation, the stored hydrogen will be used to power a fuel cell. This process will generate heat for electricity which will be re-used for the production of hydrogen.

“Under serviced or rather under resourced communities have been making do without basic power to the detriment of their safety and lifestyle. Enabling amenities that the world and other South African’s take for granted such lighting for studying are highly sort after.  The basic privilege of flicking on a light switch for illumination, heat and access to connectivity are creating exciting prospects for improved education, health and security”, explained Professor Christo Pienaar, Vaal University of Technology’s Director of Institute for Applied Electronics.

About 80 percent of South African homes have grid-based electricity, leaving approximately one million homes that could benefit from such a system. The potential in the rest of Africa is enormous as in many countries only about five percent of homes are connected to the grid.

On average, six homes would be connected to each power plant. Consequently, if 25 percent of the homes needing electricity were to use this system, about 42 000 power plants would be required. The job creating potential is considerable. Each power plant would require site construction, followed by the electrical installations. In addition, ongoing maintenance of the systems and regular cleaning of the photo voltaic (PV) panels is essential, providing further employment. These jobs would be provided where they are most needed: in rural areas and communities.

Other potential small business and job creation opportunities lie in local assembly of power plants with a medium-term likelihood of local manufacture of PV products and low pressure hydrogen tanks.

“The economically viable provision of electrical power to rural and deprived areas is probably the single most important catalyst for empowerment and upliftment through improved education, healthcare and employment”, said Professor Pienaar.

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