Wired to the sun
Since the 44 megawatt solar plant just outside the Karoo town of Touws River started selling electricity to the national grid in December 2014, a percentage of its revenue has been ploughed into giving study opportunities, work experience, and jobs to youngsters who might otherwise have few opportunities in the region’s lacklustre economy. Leonie Joubert met one of the plant’s ‘light voltage’ electricians.
There’s not a whole lot going on in Touws River at closing time on the average work day. A determined breeze trots down the main road, tumbleweeding a few paper bags between the loose groups of people who stroll languidly home. Do an internet search for ‘the best restaurant in town’, and it’ll throw back the name of a single fast food joint at a truck stop perched on the edge of the national highway which runs directly past town. It’s the kind of place where truckers pull onto the roadside at two, three, sometimes four o’clock in the morning, and stand next to their idling rigs, calling to one another while the thundering engines set the steel-framed windows of the town’s only hotel a-rattling.
Cornelius Flink is the son of a former railway man. He grew up in this small Karoo town which, like many that had blossomed along the sidings of the tracks that shipped most of the country’s goods about for decades, has seen its economy slow to an idle as the state throttled back the rail services in the early 1990s. There were a lot of retrenchments, he remembers, and ‘the town went down after that’.
Fortunately, freight still had to be moved around the country, and so long-haul trucks picked up some of the slack. But Cornelius was nevertheless amongst the next generation of town’s residents who finished school, only to find there wasn’t much by way of job prospects or further education.
Come a warm summer’s morning in January 2017, and the now 34-year-old Cornelius is standing in the control room in a solar power plant about 10km out of town, scanning a dashboard of computer monitors that are dotted with green icons, laid out in grids.
‘There are 30 blocks in all,’ the soft-spoken Cornelius explains, a two-way radio hanging easily from one hand. Each dot on the screen represents one panel of concentrated photovoltaic solar cells out there in the field, mounted on an articulated arm. There are 1 500 tracker-mounted panels across the whole site. Two of the dots, though, have flashed momentarily to red.
‘There’s one there,’ a colleague points to the righthand-most monitor, ‘and there’s another bad performance over there.’
Another grid has a single ‘warning’ sign: that universal yellow triangle with an exclamation mark in it.
Cornelius, one of the plant’s ‘light voltage’ electricians, explains the process: a technician will pop out to each of those trackers, plug a laptop into an electrical panel at its base, run a diagnostic, and then get the panel back online. All in a day’s work.
An electrician by trade
In his 20s, Cornelius came within a whisper of getting his electrician certificate. He was two prac units shy of getting his diploma from a college in Cape Town, when he was offered a chance to upgrade to a degree at Stellenbosch University. But things fell apart in his third year.
‘I was… distracted,’ he says, his fingers tightly entwined in front of him.
He was battling through his first semester - ‘The course is tough, especially in third year!’ - when his mother fell ill. Cancer. He failed his first semester, tried again, and failed again. Between that, moving out of the koshuis (the university residence), and trying to support himself with little funding, it was all too much.
He worked for a while - mundane jobs, like at a local fast food joint - but eventually came back home to live with his father, where he was without work for ‘two or three years’, he can’t remember precisely.
But then in 2012, a German company that supplies renewable energy equipment rolled into town, looking to recruit some local talent to train up as electricians for a plant that was about to be built about 10km out of town as part of the South African Department of Energy’s utility-scale renewable energy rollout.
Soitec, which specialises in concentrated photovoltaic solar technology, sent Cornelius off with 17 others on six months’ training, and then hired them to help install the electronics on the tracker control units and other aspects of the plant’s ‘light’ electronics.
This kept Cornelius employed until the plant was completed in 2014 (it went ‘live’ in December 2014). Once their contracts ended, he was once again left looking for odd jobs in town, until another opportunity linked to the power plant came his way a year later.
Knowledge Pele, the development wing of Johannesburg-based renewable energy firm, Pele Green Energy, was ready to start implementing the plant’s social responsibility plan. The consortium that owns and runs the site, of which Pele Green is a part, is required according to its contract with the state to channel a percentage of the revenue earned from selling power to the grid, back into the local community through various socio-economic or enterprise development schemes. This work spans the 20-year life of the plant.
One of Knowledge Pele’s initiatives is to link people like Cornelius up with internship opportunities in Johannesburg. And so, in 2016, he went to ‘the big smoke’ to spend a year working for an electronics firm, wiring up PV boxes, connecting the ‘DC’ side to the cable, working on the transformers and the lights.
‘Wiring the cables into the inverters, that needs attention to detail! There are a ton of wires in there. You have to use your wiring diagram.’
Once he returned from the internship, he was offered one of the operational jobs here at the power plant, where he and two others from the original course now work together.
Tracking the sun
Cornelius leads the way out into the field of trackers, after the mandatory breathalyser test and visitor safety briefing.
‘Beware of snakes and wildlife,’ the safety officer warns. Cape cobras and puff adders, lots of them, he says.
Cornelius is a quiet man, and needs to be drawn out on most topics, but when pressed, he smiles and admits that this is one of the more beautiful solar technologies.
Concentrated PV works on the same principle as burning paper with a magnifying glass: a panel is made up of a series of convex pieces of glass, each of which concentrates the sunlight into a blisteringly hot point of light, which is focused onto a photovoltaic cell that’s about the size of a pinky fingernail.
The conversion rate of sunlight to energy is much greater and more efficient than with standard PV cells. But to work, it needs to be technically on-point: the panel needs to stay locked precisely onto the sun, even as the Earth spins slowly through its cycle. The tracker must keep in lockstep, ensuring that the beam of light coming through each piece of glass remains in focus throughout the day, and doesn’t wander off its target.
Like daisy flowers turning their faces to the sun, these trackers will follow the arch of the sun through the sky, day, after day, after day, through the twenty year life of the plant. And technicians like Cornelius will need to be on standby, to make sure none of them goes offline in that time.