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Solar power breakthrough

13 July 2010 – Swiss pilot Andre Borschberg flew his plane, Solar Impulse, on a 26-hour trip around Switzerland, powered only by solar energy. It was the longest and highest flight in the history of solar aviation. Though the light carbon-fibre vehicle is far from becoming a commercial vehicle, the flight highlighted the extent to which the world could use solar power. In sunny South Africa, solar power is a clean, alternative energy source.

Though cost has been a major deterrent, that is changing quickly, said Colin Bain, the ombudsman for the Sustainable Energy Society of Southern Africa. Bain said that some of the initiatives that have been in place for several years include solar-water heating and solar energy collection for power in homes. Industries have been using solar power in areas that are off the Eskom grid. The Johannesburg Roads Agency has successfully piloted the use of solar-powered traffic lights. By the end of the year, 400 intersections will run on solar traffic lights. Emergency telephone points at remote places on highways also use solar devices.

Bain said that using solar energy in remote areas off the grid was cheaper than running lines. "The society has put up panels to collect electricity for schools in Ladysmith and KwaZulu-Natal. The schools are then able to run lighting, TVs and DVD players completely off the grid."

Solar power is not about harvesting energy from the sun. The sun creates low-voltage energy, which has to be collected and stored in batteries, which are costly. This power then has to be converted from 12V to 230V before it can be used, also an expensive process.

"Though solar power is expensive, it’s effective. In some places, the cost of connecting remote areas to the grid is extremely high, so solar energy is a viable option," Bain said.

So, when will we fly green on a commercial level?

Not for a long time, said Toby Jermyn, the regional manager of CO2 Balance, a company that helps individuals and businesses offset their carbon footprint.

"We are getting there, but totally carbon-free travel is a long way away. Human beings have been flying for only 100 years, so maybe in another 100 years."

Jermyn said solar technology is not developed enough to completely eliminate electricity, but it has helped take the first step to offset carbon emissions.

Everyone, from multinational businesses to rural families, have begun to reduce his carbon footprint, he said. A project spearheaded by the organisation in the rural Eastern Cape has allowed a community to reduce its footprint by making the most basic of changes.

"We helped them reduce the amounts of cooking fuel they use, thereby reducing the amount of carbon dioxide produced. People are collecting less wood, children can spend more time studying and the women are not out in the forest for long periods."

Mabule Mokhine, the operations manager for the Green House outreach and information project, said the Solar Impulse success was a wake-up call for South Africans.

"The initiative is indicative of how far South Africa is lagging with the technology. We need to step up or it will be difficult to catch up after the solar market opens up."

Mokhine said the $3.75-billion (R28.5-billion) loan from the World Bank to develop the coal-fired Medupi power station was an indication of the urgency to move towards renewable energy.

"If only 10% of the cost [of Medupi] goes to renewables, we don’t have our ducks in a row yet and it’s not a priority," he said.

"The cost of renewable energy systems in homes is dropping. Ordinary households need to become proactive, maybe pay the systems off in instalments. We need to outgrow our laissez faire attitude of waiting for the powers that be to fix things, and do it ourselves."