Rural North West school gets green electricity

Science and Technology Minister Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane will on Friday launch a renewable energy system at a school in the North West province to demonstrate the reliability and scalability of renewable energy.

The 2.5kW Hydrogen Fuel Cell (HFC) System will be deployed at Poelano Secondary School and will enable the rural school to access off-grid electricity for ICT and lighting.

The school of 486 pupils was specifically chosen for the project, which is intended to showcase the ability of renewable energy to meet the needs of communities where they have no access to Eskom power.

"The school was facing problems with the payment of its electricity bill. The grant provided to the school was not sufficient to cover the school's requirements, resulting in money being owed to Eskom and power being cut off," project leader Dr Cosmas Chiteme told News24.

Water as a by-product

Chiteme, who is the director of the department's hydrogen and energy directorate, explained that the school was chosen in consultation with the education department.

"After liaising with the Department of Basic Education, the Department of Science and Technology decided to assist the school by providing this innovative energy solution utilising platinum that is mined in the North West province."

Fuel cell technology has experienced some growth as concern grows about harmful fossil fuel emissions from carbon-based fuel, such as oil.

Because the technology uses hydrogen to produce electricity, the only by-product is water.

In particular, fuel cells have been advanced as a possible way to power electric vehicles though concerns over the cost, storage and supply of hydrogen remains.

The HFC system is proof that the technology can easily be deployed to other schools and communities, asserted Chiteme.

"The system is very scalable given its modular nature. For increased power requirements, two or more systems can be combined with minor modifications to the balance of plant.

"The system is flexible enough to be rolled out in both rural and urban areas, as long as there is space for solar photovoltaic (PV) panels either on the roof or mounted on the ground.  The system can also be fuelled by hydrogen gas supplied independently without the solar panels."

Small HFC systems work at a temperature of between 50°C to 100°C and produce less than 250kW of electricity, while more expensive solid oxide systems can generate up to 3MW, but work at temperatures of between 650°C to 1 000°C, according the US Department of Energy.

Solar PV panels help to augment the electricity production by converting energy from the sun to electrical energy. (Dr Cosmas Chiteme, Director: Hydrogen and Energy, Department of Science and Technology)


The system developed for the school had a comparative cost to a solar PV system.

"The cost of the system was just under R10m. This includes the solar PV panels, fuel cell system, electrolyser for on-site hydrogen production from water, hydrogen storage system as well as the battery system for electrical power storage. It should be noted that this is the developmental cost and any subsequent systems of similar size will be delivered at a lower cost," said Chiteme.

In 2013, Vodacom spent R10m on a roof-mounted solar panel set that the mobile operator would pay for itself in just over five years.

According to the Department of Energy, there were about 3.2 million households without electricity in SA in 2013.

In the Stats SA 2015 report, expenditure on housing, water and fuels (including electricity) amounted to 32.6% of household income, of which 3.4% was electricity.

Chiteme said that there were plans to roll out the system in rural areas, which are often without grid electricity or a reliable supply.

"The rate at which the price will decrease will depend on the number of systems rolled out due to economies of scale. There are definitely plans to roll out the systems, particularly in rural schools and clinics. The number of rural schools and clinics with unreliable or no access to power in South Africa have been estimated at over 5 000."

The HFC system was developed by multiple agencies, including the Council for Industrial and Scientific Research (CSIR), North-West University, UCT, Mintek, and UWC.

"It is expected that partnerships involving both public and private sectors will drive the roll out of the systems, which are anchored by local intellectual property developed through the Hydrogen South Africa (HySA) Programme, leading to local manufacturing and job creation in the country," said Chiteme.

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