It was only relatively recently that the biggest, yet least populated, region of South Africa stepped out on its own. Until 1994, Northern Cape province came under the ward of Cape Province along with its two sisters, Eastern and Western Cape. Following an administrative split, the three went their own ways.
For decades, Northern Cape’s gaze looked down to the earth, which it knew very well how to exploit, in extracting the precious diamonds from kimberlite on the shores of the Orange River, for example, in its capital, Kimberley; and through the vineyards that produce one of the world’s best red wines of South Africa’s signature grape Pinotage – a cross between Pinot Noir and Cinsaut (formerly Hermitage, hence the portmanteau of “Pinot” and “-age”).
Also looking downwards in the earth, Northern Cape’s inhabitants discovered one of the planet’s biggest deposits of iron ore, reserves at the Sishen mine being estimated at 2.43 billion tonnes.
One day, however, the Northern Cape folk decided to reflect, not only on what was below them, but what lay above. After many years of digging downwards, something told them there may also be riches in the sky, and what they imagined took their breath away. They contemplated the cerulean sky and the golden sun, warm and agreeable on the skin. They knew, of course, that the sun had always been there, but they were still to work out what more they could do with it. And yet the sun is perhaps their most precious resource, an inexhaustible source of energy and life. It was time for the people of Northern Cape to step out again, eyes firmly fixed on a new horizon; time to exploit a natural resource as native to the region as the diamonds of Kimberley and the Pinotage grape: the heat of the sun.
The biggest photovoltaic production in Africa
Just 25 km north of the Sishen mine, lies Dibeng, a small town of 8,000 people in the District Municipality of John Taolo Gaetsewe. It is here that ACCIONA Energy led a consortium including the South African company Aveng and two community entities – Soul City and Dibeng Community Solar Energy Trust – in building the Sishen photovoltaic plant. Guided by ACCIONA, Northern Cape province switched on the plant with the biggest photovoltaic production in the whole African continent, on 29 November 2014.
Generating 216 GWh of electricity a year, Sishen solar photovoltaic plant offers enough clean energy to supply 100,000 South African homes. Yet the facility also benefits the wider global community by avoiding the emission of 208,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, or, to look at it another way, by cleaning the air with an effect equivalent to over 10 million trees absorbing CO2 and returning pure oxygen to the environment.
327 kilometers of sustainable technology
The facility that supplies clean electricity to thousands of South Africans is a colossal work of engineering in itself. The plant extends the length and breadth of some 250 hectares, covered largely by 319,600 photovoltaic panels. If these were to be placed one after another in a line, the modules would stretch for 327 km.
The panels sit on 470 horizontal tracking structures programmed to follow the path of the sun from east to west every day of the year and thus capture every single ray of energy they can by virtue of more than 23 million solar cells.
A healthy social footprint
As is ACCIONA’s trademark worldwide, the local community significantly benefits economically from working with the company. During the 15 months it took to build the plant, around 1,000 jobs were created, 94% filled by South Africans.
Likewise, over the construction period and working life of the facility, which is expected to operate for over 25 years, the Sishen plant will contribute an estimated 130 million dollars to South Africa’s gross domestic product (GDP).
In addition, 2.1% of its annual revenues are destined for socioeconomic development initiatives in the province, which, until relatively recently, was taking its first tentative steps to Independence. Today, with the support of ACCIONA, the area is running ahead now – along the prosperous path of renewable energy.
You can discover more stories like this on ACCIONA’s website.