Power from platinum

2016-10-16 18:00
POWER TO THE PEOPLE The fuel cell installation at Naledi Trust, with the village that the power is supplied to in the background Picture: Geoff Brown / Anglo American

POWER TO THE PEOPLE The fuel cell installation at Naledi Trust, with the village that the power is supplied to in the background Picture: Geoff Brown / Anglo American

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The battered stretch of pot-holed road leading from Kroonstad to Maokeng township gets worse each year.

Approaching the Naledi Trust rural community on the other side of the township, on land once known as the Lovedale farm, a creaky windmill stands in an open field, blades whirring. The pump it was connected to last worked years ago.

It is a typical morning during the school holidays and, getting closer to the community

His neighbour, Leah Mabitle (71), stands in the middle of her kitchen doorway keeping an eye on her grandchildren and their friends playing outside. On the other side of the village, the smell of breakfast still hangs in the air of 59-year-old Mohau Motingoe’s neat kitchen.

To this small community, life has gone from “depressing” to “normal”, thanks to an initiative by Anglo American Platinum (Amplats), which uses platinum as a catalyst in methanol fuel cells to generate electricity.

Mohau Motingoe Picture: Tebogo Letsie

Before Amplats stepped in, residents say Naledi Trust “was nothing more than a forgotten and hopeless community”.

Residents inherited the farm from its former owner and co-own the land, which was placed in trust.

Motingoe says their woes began when Eskom cut them off the electricity grid just before the 2010 Soccer World Cup.

“We had a joint account into which we paid some of the proceeds made from a community chicken farm, but the business was not doing well and soon we owed Eskom almost R50 000,” says the former farm worker.

“For five years, we lived without electricity in what was the worst time of our lives – especially for our children and the young people, who started spending most of their time loitering in the streets and doing bad things because they were bored.

“A lot of us are unemployed here, but we fought to keep the community project afloat and, after a few years, we managed to settle our electricity bill. But we told Eskom not to reconnect us, because we could still not afford to pay. We were isolated and cut off from the world.”

Mabitle says they had to force children to go to bed early in winter to keep them warm after a dinner cooked on fires fuelled by wood collected from the surrounding bush.

“Children were unhappy living in a house where they could only watch a blank television screen and where a radio had become a decorative piece,” she says. “We were living like in the old days, buying food every day to cook and eat that same day, because fridges were off for five years.”

Leah Mabitle Picture: Tebogo Letsie

When Amplats went looking for an off-the-grid neighbourhood in which they could pilot their fuel cell technology, Naledi Trust was the perfect choice. The technology was developed by fuel cell company Ballard, which Amplats invested in as part of its effort to develop markets for platinum group metals.

This trial project, the first of its kind in the world, proves how fuel cell technology can be used to electrify communities that are far from the existing Eskom grid.

Amplats’ market development principal Angelin Maharaj says the system “offers an efficient, low-carbon option when comparing it with supplying rural communities with power from diesel generators”.

“Unlike other green alternatives such as wind power, these fuel cells can produce power whenever the demand exists and with no reliance on weather conditions,” he says.

To get power back to Naledi Trust, Amplats installed a 14 000 litre tank that is filled with methanol fuel every month, as well as three fuel cells and four steel containers housing a battery bank, converter and an inverter control.

These components are connected to produce 15kW of fuel cell-generated electric power, which is enough to supply the 34 households with electricity. The same system can supply peak power demands of 60kW with electricity stored in its batteries.

The electricity plant is right next to Motingoe’s house and what he loves about it is that “it does not produce any noise that keeps me awake at night”.

“Each house now has a prepaid meter with a light indicator that shows consumption, as well as a warning signal. When you overload the system with too many appliances at once, it cuts the supply to the house,” he says.

“After five years of living in the dark and in ancient times, we have learnt to appreciate electricity and use it sparingly.”

A BRIGHTER WORLD The Naledi Trust community were the first people to receive electricity produced using platinum as a catalyst Picture: Tebogo Letsie

Residents are still expected to pay for the electricity they use. As indigent citizens, they receive 50kWh free every month.

“I normally spend less than R50 on electricity per month to top up on the free allocation and life is back to normal, with children now able to study under proper lighting.”

As part of the pilot project, each household was given a few low-consumption appliances, including a small fridge, an iron, a kettle, a two-plate stove and six compact fluorescent lights.

Kopele says his friends from the nearby township now come and visit him to charge their cellphones during load shedding.

“For five years, we often walked to the township 5km away to charge cellphones and my laptop, but now they are the ones who are turning to us. With our electricity, we do not experience any load shedding,” he says.

The trial period for this alternative energy source comes to an end in December and Naledi Trust residents will be switched back to the main Eskom grid. And residents are not happy.

“Our current setup is more reliable and I wish it could stay forever. We thank these people for bringing life back to us with uninterrupted and reliable power,” Motingoe says.

The battery bank at Amplats’ fuel cell power plant near Kroonstad. P:icture: Tebogo Letsie

The project has enjoyed support from the department of mineral resources. On a visit to Naledi Trust two weeks ago, Deputy Mineral Resources Minister Godfrey Oliphant said fuel cells were one of the resources government was considering for alternative power generation.

“People didn’t believe in this when we were here two years ago – they were not sure,” he said. “Negotiations are at an advanced stage as to where we go to from now.”

Amplats engineering consultant Clive Seymour says the pilot project exceeded their expectations. “When we started, we had no idea what the demand pattern would be; we have really overestimated the demand. With the same equipment, we can provide 70 homes with power,” he says.

Joel Netshitenzhe, executive director of the Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection, a think-tank that has researched the potential of platinum group metals in South Africa, says it’s expensive to take the electricity grid to far-flung villages and other solutions were needed.

“If we act with speed, South Africa can easily develop into a world leader in fuel cell technologies, and offer unique solutions to the rest of sub-Saharan Africa,” he said.

Maharaj says that besides demonstrating the technical feasibility and advantages of fuel cell micro grids in rural areas with no electricity, it also proves “the social and economic benefit to rural communities and South Africa’s supplier capability”.

“The deployment of fuel cells for rural electrification will hopefully result in the establishment of a new, high-tech industry, with local manufacturing, job creation, trade and an increase in platinum demand.”

This series is reported by City Press and sponsored by Anglo American Platinum


Do you know of another village that has no electricity supply in which a project of this nature would work?

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