Posts in "Renewables"

The grocery store we’ve all been waiting for

I am just back from my first visit to Nude Foods, the grocery store we have all been waiting for! I do mean all of us. Cape Town’s new plastic-free grocer is heaven for hipsters, for sure, with its hemp seeds, healthy hair products and earth-friendly body and home products, and a veritable lezzer nirvana with all those non-GMO pulses and legumes and natural fibre face clothes.

But even if you are a totally unreformed meat-eating, booze-guzzling, SUV-driving capitalist you will probably like the raw understated style of the green-green grocer with its exposed brickwork and sexy container-ing of extra virgin olive oil, balsamic and friends.

Plus there are many other little tricks and treats such as  an all-natural stain remover stick that removes even that environmentally friendly extra virgin olive oil should it be splashed on your favourite blouse, I am reliably informed.

The target-obsessed, outcomes-focused busy bees will love the convenience of it all.

Just a few minutes away from worshipping at the altar of your own busy-busy-busy-ness and you will have achieved low cost, high impact efficiency (and probably a few super cool selfies) as you filled your hessian sack with delicious and affordable wholefoods. That’s a nice little update for LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram … that should get you some Likes!

After being offered a glass straw at the Alexander Bar last week I was delighted to see bamboo straws at Nude.

The glass straw is a nice idea and a very luxurious experience, but somehow it doesn’t feel realistic to hope that it will take off on a meaningful scale, kinda like washing your hair in Evian (Kim Bassinger and I really tried to make that take off but it just didn’t catch on).

Plastic straws seem to be widely hated at the moment; they are the gateway drug du jour and I am happy to have turned my back on them forever.

Seriously, whether you are a hipster or a total hick you will love Nude Foods at 5 Constitution Street, East City Precinct, Cape Town.

It is unforgivable not to even attempt to do your bit. See you in the water queues…  

PS I was happy to see that there is one kind of plastic that is welcome here and that they are using Yoco. I do love a little disruption!

Yoco, poster child of SA as global fintech hub

Precious drinking water running down the toilet

As water experts gather for seminars to discuss the Cape’s crisis and pop groups record songs to help people manage the time they spend in the shower, thousands of litres of drinking water continues to run down the toilet.

Robert Ince, from Cape Town-based company Bob The Plumber, says there are many small and effective ways that each household can save water. He says his company is delivering flow restrictors to clients and being called out to install some grey water systems, but the public in general is “waking up quite slowly” to what they can do.

It will surprise many, and (please God) shock at least some into action, to hear that flushing the toilet is our second highest use of potable water. That means drinking water is running down the toilet, hundreds of thousands of litres of it.

A simple solution that every household can start implementing immediately is flushing the toilet with grey water at least some of the time. No system or installation is required, the total investment is a plastic bucket, and effort involved is minimal.

A bucket placed in the shower as the water runs to warm up and alongside the person as they shower will collect quite a lot of water even during the recommended two-minute shower. This might raise awareness of how much water is being used per shower and will definitely collect water to be used for DIY flushes.

When the toilet needs a flush some of the contents of the bucket can be poured directly into the bowl to flush it. One doesn’t even have to lift the lid of the cistern. Sometimes the water is slightly soapy but what is the harm in putting some detergent into the toilet.

Ince said flushing the toilet used between 6.5 litres for the modern cistern and 13 litres for the older model of toilet per flush. Imagine if every household in Cape Town used grey water instead of potable water for just a few flushes a day.

There was a time not so long ago when gardeners were using grey water saved like this to keep herb gardens and so on going, but Tokai mother-of-two, Anne Taylor tells us, things are so bad now that most people feel that is too decadent a luxury.

A simple attachment that reroutes water from the washing machine to the garden

Taylor, who described herself as a “water warrior from the Eastern Cape”, recommended a simple small attachment which she fitted to her washing machine outlet pipe that reroutes grey water to her garden. She warns people to get advice on the size of the pipe so as not to damage the machine in any way.

Ince added that attaching a flow restrictor to a showerhead is another very easy way to save water. The restrictors, which are designed to fit “99 percent of shower heads on the market today”, are small devices with a huge impact, he says.

Households that are able to spend a little money to save a lot of water could install a grey water recycling system with a pump, which improves household water use dramatically.

Another smaller intervention suggested by Ince is to get a plumber out to adjust the pressure regulation on the water supply. He said many homes were set to six bars, which meant that a lot of water was just running down the drain, when two bars was normally sufficient.

The City of Cape Town has recommended the implementation of stringent Level 4 water restrictions, which may come into effect from the beginning of June, which would ban all use of municipal water for outside and non-essential use.

Cape Town’s dam levels are critically low with only around 10% of usable water remaining.

– African News Agency

If you can’t stand the heat get off the fence

The Antarctic Circumnavigation Expedition covered air, land and marine research during the three-month voyage PHOTO Balz Abplanalp

It was hard to ignore the heat (or the irony) on Monday as a group of scientists told occupants in a sweltering hall on a quayside at the V&A Waterfront in Cape Town that they hoped evidence gathered during a three month circumnavigation of Antarctica would “prove convincing to those politicians who have been sitting on the fence” about climate change.

David Walton, ACE chief scientist: ‘Here is some more compelling evidence that we are destroying our planet’

David Walton, the chief scientist, told the first workshop on results from the recently completed Antarctic circumnavigation expedition (ACE) that he was “hopeful that here is some more compelling evidence that we are destroying our planet but that there are some mitigating things we can do to save our future”.

ACE is the first project of the Swiss Polar Institute, a newly created entity founded by EPFL, the Swiss Institute of Forest, Snow and Landscape research WSL, ETHZ, the University of Bern and Editions Paulsen.

It set out with a diverse range of scientists from all around the world on board with a holistic mission to study the Antarctic and the Southern Ocean.

Frederik Paulsen, polar explorer and president of the ACE Foundation, reminded everyone in the sweltering room that a better understanding of Antarctica was critical, not just for its preservation, but for the whole (over-heating) planet.

The philanthropist, who is widely credited for having made the expedition possible, said the poles are affected by climate change more than any other region on Earth yet played a central role in regulating the world’s climate.

PHOTO Balz Abplanalp

A total of 22 projects covering terrestrial, marine and atmospheric disciplines were completed during the expedition that pushed science beyond cultural and geographical borders and advanced the tech frontier.

It is very early days still in terms of understanding and being able to act on findings from the voyage. In fact, when the Russian research vessel Akademik Treshnikov sailed into Cape Town last week, marking the end of the three-month long voyage, it was merely “the end of the beginning”, according to Walton.

“The next stage will last another two to three years, making the best of what we have learnt … the real work has just begun.”

Frederik Paulsen, polar explorer, president of the ACE Foundation and philanthropist is widely credited with making the expedition happen

Paulsen confirmed this and added (with a wry smile) that this could be seen as a dream for any researcher since it meant they could start asking for grants for the next 10 years.

The good news spreads well beyond the researchers from 73 institutes and 22 countries involved because all the data collected, the physical samples even, will be made available widely.

Walton said the plan had always been to spread the network of ACE as widely as possible. Research publications as well as all the data, even the samples where possible, will be available on an open access basis.

“All of this is part of a belief that things like this are going to be important only if they make their findings and data as widely available as possible.”

He said none of the country operators had ever tried something as big or holistic as this expedition, which had been bigger than any of the national programmes. The mission that involved polar institutes from seven countries and covered air, land and marine research, seems to have set out from the start to smash silo thinking and break down barriers.

Now, he said, they must get to work “to make sure the data we get is properly calibrated and controlled and its accessibility is organised in an efficient manner”.

Paulsen agreed, saying that only by joining forces could the different countries succeed in gaining a better understanding of the region, which was “not only desirable but crucial”.

“There is still much to be done.”

Polar expedition ends in steaming hot Cape Town

Cape Town, March 19

After a night of very high winds that reportedly saw Cape Town harbour temporarily closed on Saturday the Russian research vessel Akademik Treshnikov sailed into a still and steaming Cape Town on Sunday, marking the end of the Antarctic circumnavigation expedition (ACE).

The vessel departed from Cape Town three months ago with 50 scientists from around the world aboard on an intensive multi-disciplinary research mission.

Early information about the results suggests a wide variety of findings. The skeptics’ fears will be confirmed, for example, in evidence of micro-plastic pollution in even the most remote places. However, there is hope too, for example, in the discovery of pockets of air that is cleaner than the purest man-made environments, “white rooms” in laboratories.

The first results will be released on Monday when the Swiss Polar Institute runs a mini conference of presentations by scientists at a pavilion set up alongside the vessel at Jetty 2 at the V & A Waterfront. Attendance at the conference is by invitation only but a pavilion showcasing some of the work will be open to the public on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Excitement about the findings from the groundbreaking research trip, which included a total of nearly 150 scientists representing 73 scientific institutions over the three months, goes well beyond the scientific community. The expedition included a wide and diverse group of skills and experience. It was the first time such a wide range of disciplines – from biology to climatology to oceanography – had worked together to enhance understanding of Antarctica.

Also, according to information from the Swiss Polar Institute, a better understanding of the continent is critical, not just for its preservation, but for the whole planet. The poles, which play a key role in regulating the world’s climate, are affected by climate change more than any other region on Earth.

The scientists filmed and took samples under ice shelves and as deep as 3000m, completed 3D mapping of some of the 12 island groups they visited, and took the first ice cores from others. They took 18,968 individual samples of any sort on their 30,720km journey, which was completed over three stages.

Will the jury still be out once polar results are in?

Cape Town, March 14

There has been a sense for some time now that climate change denialists are living on borrowed time … one suspects the clock will tick with new intensity once the results of the Antarctic circumnavigation expedition (ACE) are released starting on Monday March 20.

The Swiss Polar Institute announced on Friday that scientists would be releasing preliminary results of the three-month expedition on Monday at a pavilion at the V&A Waterfront in Cape Town.

A pavilion showcasing some of the work will be open to the public

A showcase of some of the work will be open to the public on Tuesday March 21 and Wednesday 22 at the ACE pavilion on Jetty 2 in front of the Table Bay Hotel at the V&A Waterfront.

Many a heart will sink at the idea of evidence being found of the dreaded micro-plastic pollution in even the most remote places around Antarctica. News of air that is cleaner than in the purest man-made environments, “white rooms” in laboratories, will give a reason to breath out.

The groundbreaking research trip, which included a total of nearly 150 scientists representing 73 scientific institutions, ends when the Russian research vessel Akademik Treshnikov sails into Cape Town harbour on the morning of Sunday March 19.

The scientists filmed and took samples under ice shelves and as deep as 3,000m, completed 3D mapping of some of the 12 island groups they visited and took the first ice cores from others. They took 18,968 individual samples of any sort on their 30,720km journey, which was completed over three stages.

The expedition included a diverse group of scientists from around the world, the first time such a wide range of disciplines – From biology to climatology to oceanography – had worked together to enhance understanding of Antarctica.

The Swiss Polar Institute said a better understanding of the continent is critical, not just for its preservation, but for the whole planet.

The poles, which play a key role in regulating the world’s climate, are affected by climate change more than any other region on Earth.

Antarctica is rare on earth in that it has never been affected by war and remains protected from many of the causes thereof.

The Antarctic Treaty, which has signed by countries that represent about 80 percent of the world’s population, has ensured that this has continued and will continue for the foreseeable future.

According to the Antarctic Treaty, the first version of which came into effect in 1961, the continent is dedicated to peaceful scientific investigation.

Exploration for oil and other minerals is banned under the agreement, which also pledges to keep Antarctica demilitarised and nuclear free.


Lessons in life as Antarctic expedition departs

David Walton says he was appointed chief of the polar expedition at the one meeting he missed

December 21 2016

Rather than delivering a science class, David Walton, chief scientist on the Antarctic Circumnavigation Expedition (ACE), shared a few life lessons with the VIP crowd gathered at the Table Bay harbour for the expedition’s send-off.

First, Walton said, he had learned during his 50-odd years in science that one should be wary of invitations that appeared on the surface to have no significance.

As a case in point he talked about what appeared to be an invitation to lunch that turned into his being chief scientist on a three-month expedition to the South Pole.

A second lesson he shared with the gathered scientists and diplomats – including South African Minister of Science and Technology Naledi Pandor and Krystyna Marty Lang, Switzerland’s Deputy Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs – was that one should attend every meeting.

It was at the one technical meeting that he missed that he was elected head scientist, he said.

The 50 scientists on board the Russian vessel Akademik Treshnikov will be sharing a lot more life lessons and plenty of science during the groundbreaking scientific expedition, which is set to dramatically expand mankind’s knowledge about this key region.

Scientist Julia Schmale hopes to find answers and raise new questions

One of those scientists, Julia Schmale from the Paul Scherrer Institute, told the farewell reception that one of the very exciting aspects of this expedition was that it encompassed such a variety of disciplines

She said scientists would have a lot of time to get to know each other and each others’ work and, crucially, “to explore the linkages between the work”.

The Swiss-funded ACE is composed of 22 projects, bringing together research teams from six continents. They focus on different areas of study, all fundamental for a better understanding of Antarctica’s ecosystems.

Schmale had earlier reminded those gathered to see the boat off how much times had changed by reading out an advertisement said to have been placed by early polar explorer Ernest Shackleton in The Times of London on December 29, 1913: “Men wanted for hazardous journey. Low wages, bitter cold, long hours of complete darkness. Safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in event of success.”

Shackleton, who led three British expeditions to the Antarctic, was one of the principal figures of the period known as the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration.

The scientists aboard the Akademik Treshnikov might well become known as the ones who started the Second Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration.

Naledi Pandor, South African Minister of Science and Technology, wished the expedition success on behalf of the country and the continent

“Scientists and explorers pick the challenges of their time,” Schmale said.

There are different goals and measures of success, too. In the words of Schmale, success will be measured by coming back with some answers; great success by coming back with many more questions.

ACE is the first project of the Swiss Polar Institute, a newly created public-private partnership that aims to enhance international relations and collaboration between countries on Antarctica. It also hopes to spark the interest of a new generation of young scientists and explorers in polar research.

– African News Agency (ANA)

Shining a light on Africa’s utilities sector

Kandeh Yumkella

Leading light: Kandeh Yunkella won a lifetime achiever award

Anyone who witnessed Kandeh Yumkella’s inspiring keynote speech at the opening of the annual African Utility Week won’t be surprised to hear that the Sierra Leonean who is the UN’s first special representative for the Sustainable Energy for All Initiative (SE4All) leaves the event, which closes on Thursday, with a Lifetime Achievement Award.

In his opening speech, Yumkella, who is also chief executive of SE4All, first softened the audience up with stories about his own journey of leaving the stability and glamour of the life of a UN Under-Secretary-General in New York to move back to Africa. Then he switched tack and tone and issued a hard call to the audience to take action to end the “unacceptable” situation where so many millions of Africans were without power.

He urged the many experts and representatives from the various national and continental authorities in the audience to take note of the fact that up to 80 percent of people were without power in countries with enormous natural endowments. More than 5,000 power and water professionals were gathered in Cape Town for event from May 17-19.

In the context of last week’s World Economic Forum on Africa meetings in Kigali, which focused on the Fourth Industrial Revolution, Yumkella said Africa had financed the first three industrial revolutions, first with human resources via the slave trade and then with natural resources.

“The next one has to be ours!” he urged.

Africa, he said, had to break out of the trap of the commodities cycle. “We have been selling fruit and vegetables for 400 years,” he said. “We should be building factories.”

Yumkella, who is a former minister for trade, industry and state enterprises of Sierra Leone, said that 50 percent of fruits rotted on the farm in Africa, as did 40 percent of the tubers and 20 percent of the cereals. “We need to change that,” he said, noting that preservation, whether by refrigeration or processing, usually required electricity.

The African Utility Week lifetime award was given to him for his work on “the planning and implementation of the SE4All initiative, as well as engaging with the leadership of relevant stakeholders in government, businesses, academia and civil society at the highest level to advocate for and promote sustainable energy for all”.

Accepting the award at a gala dinner on Wednesday evening, Yumkella said: “I know the energy revolution is powering up and ready to take off. We saw again this week that we have the technology and the innovation. Sometimes we are too suspicious of each other, we should embrace energy trade with each other.”

In other awards given out on the night, Johannesburg’s City Power was named Power Utility of the Year. The award was given in recognition of the utility’s flagship Solar Water Heating Programme in which approximately 70,000 low income households around Johannesburg were fitted with solar water geysers. The project, run over three years, generated 20,000 job opportunities .

Sicelo Xulu, City Power’s managing director, said: “This accolade galvanises us to work harder to provide our customers with the superior service they deserve.”

AfricanUtilityWeekAlbert Mugo, managing director and chief executive of Kenya’s KenGen, was named power utility executive of the year. He was awarded for his work in “executing a strategy of least cost power development options in order to provide reliable, safe and competitively priced energy to the nation”.

Uganda’s National Water and Sewerage Corporation cemented its position at the top of the table, winning the Water Utility of the Year for the second year running. This year, the NSWC, “undertook transformational changes in its operational and geographical mandate, providing new and homegrown solutions to water service provision challenges and highlighting its contribution towards the national vision of transforming Uganda from a peasant to a self-sustaining economy”.

Philip Gichuki, another leading Kenyan executive, took the title, Water Utility Executive of the Year. The managing director of Nairobi City Water and Sewerage Company, sole provider of water and sewerage services to Nairobi’s 3.8 million people, has “promoted the objective of the water sector in Kenya in improving access to water and sewerage services for all under a conducive environment for the consumers, communities, partners and staff working in the sector”.

The title Clean Energy Project of the Year went to the Akon Lighting Africa Initiative for its innovative solar-powered solution that provides African villages with access to a clean and affordable source of electricity. The group has operations in 15 countries, including Guinea Conakry, Senegal, Mali, Niger, Benin and Sierra Leone, and is covering over 480 communities.

The Development Bank of Southern Africa won the award for Pioneer in Project Finance for its innovative financing instrument designed to help local parties and communities acquire equity stakes in companies. The DBSA has so far replicated the model in 17 projects with a capacity of 2100 MW.

Lungile Mashele, energy specialist at DBSA, accepting the award on behalf of the bank, said: “The DBSA is responding to the call of government to support the renewable projects and would also like to get involved in projects beyond South Africa’s borders.”

The title Community Development Project of the Year went to Noble Water Solutions, whose Noble Power Station is the only high volume, low-maintenance, portable solar-powered water treatment plant of its kind in the world. Each water station provides 500 people with 20 litres of safe drinking water every day for life.

“We have a huge problem in Africa and we have to recognise that,” said Kevin Paxton, chief executive of Noble Water Solutions. “A third of the continent, that is 300 million people, do not have access to safe drinking water. We cannot develop as a continent unless we solve this problem.

“Our invention goes some way to addressing this problem, but where there is no political will, it will not happen,” he added.

Michael Njoroge, chief executive of Kenya’s Multi-link Group, took the Future Leader Award winner. He started Multi-link in April 2010 to supply clean cooking stoves and solar lanterns. The company is now completing the development of the 3M 40mw grid-connected solar project in Nakuru in Kenya, which will be the largest grid-connected solar project in East and Central Africa when it comes online in 2017.

It wasn’t only Kenyan men who caught the eye of the judges. Phyllis Engefu Ombonyo, director for business development at the country’s National Environment Trust Fund, was named Power/Water Woman of the Year.

The title of Energy/Water Efficiency Project of the Year went to George Airport’s solar plant, which is owned and operated by Airports Company South Africa. The solar photovoltaic plant, built on 200 sq m of land, has 3,000 photovoltaic modules, 30 inverters and a substation. The plant was built to meet about 41 percent of the airport’s energy demand.

Of the 15 small or medium sized enterprises, start-ups and young innovators selected to be part of the African Utility Week’s Innovation Hub, PowerOptimal was selected as overall winner. Its power demand management technology has been commercially proven in diverse installations such as hotels, office buildings, shopping malls and golf courses.

– African News Agency (ANA)

PowerTurtle hatches a plan to power school

 SolarTurtleAn innovative, mini-power station, the PowerTurtle, will be launched at a primary school in an informal settlement in Gauteng on March 2, possibly heralding the start of a revolution in bringing power to schools that are off the grid.

The power station in a container will officially be launched at Pheasant Folly Primary School in Palm Ridge.

The PowerTurtle, which evolved from the SolarTurtle launched in the Eastern Cape last year, offers enhanced security and ease of operation on the earlier model.

Morning sunshine triggers the solar panels to roll out, with an an especially engineered rail system allowing the unit to unfold in minutes. In the evening the solar panels slide back into the reinforced 6 metre shipping container.

Representatives from the president’s office, the Gauteng province, the department of energy, the department of education and the Independent Power Producer (IPP) Office will be on hand to officially inaugurate the PowerTurtle at the school.

The school could previously access power only through generators, which cost R2,000 a week to fuel.

SolarTurtleJames and Tina

South African Energy Minister Tina Joemat-Peterson presents James van der Walt with the initial cheque EnergyNet gave in support of the project

James van der Walt of Ugesi Gold and the developer of SolarTurtle, said: “PowerTurtle is the first step towards secure, reliable and sustainable electricity for schools like Pheasant Folly Primary School.

“The unique PowaPod design allows a series of solar panels to unfold from the confines of a secure 6m shipping container, and back again at night.

“By launching the PowerTurtle in Palm Ridge we hope to show the potential of not only secure electricity for the school, but an energy solution for the whole community,” said Van der Walt, adding that he wanted to thank AMSolar and RexiVista for helping to “bring the PowerTurtle to life”.

Just in the Gauteng region of South Africa, an estimated 2,500 off-grid schools, typically located in informal settlements, are desperately in need of power.

Vandalism and theft have severely hampered the roll out of solar power in the past. The PowerTurtle’s unique security features mean the panels cannot be easily stolen or damaged.

The PowerTurtle at Pheasant Folly Primary School is the first investment of the ‘Not Just Talking Fund for Energy Access’, launched by EnergyNet Ltd and its advisors, Impact Brands Africa, Fieldstone and ERM, in October last year. The project is being launched in partnership with the IPP Office of South Africa and Minister for Energy Tina Joemat-Pettersson.

The ‘Not Just Talking Fund for Energy Access’ is designed to provide an alternative financing solution for small-scale and beyond-the-grid projects across Africa, especially in areas of healthcare, education and female empowerment.

In October 2015 we wrote …

A local off-grid power station that looks a little like a UFO selling electricity by the bottle, and a computer game designed to teach the community how to run it as a business. Does that sound like life in a sci-fi movie or in the rural Eastern Cape to you?

The first SolarTurtle, a container with fold-away solar panels that will open a world of micro business opportunities for rural communities, hatched (or landed, perhaps) at a school deep in the rural Eastern Cape in June. A computer game teaching people who are not on the power grid how to run the solar unit as a business is still in James van der Walt’s head … but groundbreaking ideas germinated there tend to make it to reality.


James van der Walt

Van der Walt is a 30-something mechanical engineer and software programmer who returned to South Africa a few years ago after living and working abroad for seven years with ideas to start a business that would make a difference. He had found himself working in the financial sector in Ireland after following an Irish lady home one day (all the way to Galway). Like so many in his generation, he found himself searching for meaning in his career beyond work, spend, save, retire.

plugging in the powerHis search for meaning led via a long and winding road to the Eastern Cape where today members of a rural community take large recycled plastic containers to a solar station to buy their energy by the bottle. The plastic bottles have been turned into rechargeable batteries that are charged during the daylight hours to be taken home in the evening to add light, heat, sound and etc to people’s lives. The bottles, holding traditional rechargeable batteries and with their lid transformed into a socket, are easy to carry.

Van der Walt remembers sitting on a ferry to the Aran Islands off the west coast of Ireland one day looking at a steel plaque noting that the vessel that felt like it was being tossed about lightly on the sea weighed 40,000 tons. That must take a lot of energy, he thought. Add to that two other current hot topics that were on his mind: the financial crisis, which had put a lot of people out of work, and the energy crisis facing most countries. It was at that confluence, he says, that the idea for the SolarTurtle was born.

Then it wasn’t much more than a ray of hope that was to grow into the SolarTurtle. For reasons that are both simple and complicated, Van der Walt moved from Ireland to New Zealand. It was here that he had his next eureka moment after thinking, “There seem to be no problems here; this might not be the right place for me to settle if I want to make a difference in the world.”
All the while the ideas from that day on the ferry were rolling about in his head and an idea started forming around harnessing the power of nature to meet some of the obvious needs of man. Van der Walt started making enquiries about moving back to South Africa and the next thing you know he was here working on a business plan. It was then that a friend suggested he contact universities for help with research. He contacted the Centre for Renewable and Sustainable Energy Studies at Stellenbosch University and the response was so positive that he ended up doing a masters in mechanical engineering at the school.

“This not only gave me the opportunity to study the problems faced by rural electrification first hand, but also to have access to some of the country’s leading experts on renewable energy and mechanical design,” says Van der Walt, who says he couldn’t have done it without the support of the school and particularly Professor Wikus van Niekerk.

Once he had the support of the university Van der Walt started to transform his ideas into action. Visiting communities who had no access to power, he quickly discovered that one of the main problems with rolling out a solar solution was theft and vandalism. More often than not, solar panels were stolen, with travelling syndicates of thieves disappearing in the night with equipment installed in remote areas.


Power point: a local charges her phone in the Solar Turtle

It was then that Van der Walt realised that this was why shipping containers were being used as spaza shops. Another eureka moment, another stage in the plan. With some financial help from the South African National Energy Development Institute, the Technology Innovation Agency and the Department of Science and Technology, Van der Walt got his idea off the ground and on to the ground, with the first SolarTurtle starting to sell clean electricity at Ngangonwandle High School on June 15.

Ngangonwandle, 50km from Coffee Bay, is the largest school in the district with more than 2,000 learners, none of whom had electricity at home. Potential customers, you might say, making for a viable business proposition, in Van der Walt’s words. The local community was delighted to be introduced to the concept of buying electricity by the bottle.

The need for electricity in the region is dire, says Van der Walt. As if to prove the point, he says, a while after the unit launched, Eskom cut off the whole region’s power for two days due to problems at the local substation. During this time the SolarTurtle was the only place people in the wider area could get electricity and more than R2,500 worth of trade was done at the unit. “We could not have asked for a better opening day gift,” says Van der Walt.


Batteries recharging

Another gift has been the entrepreneur who runs the first SolarTurtle, a local woman, Lungelwa Tyali, who recently moved back to her ancestral home after working as an executive in Johannesburg for many years.


Buzz: a barber at work at the Solar Turtle

In addition to selling clean power, she is trying many things to make her business work, for example an internet cafe, offering refrigeration services, as well as allowing a barber to set up shop. One can only imagine the opportunities for sales of goods, services and entertainment.

But what about the computer game to teach people how to run the business, I hear you wonder. When I suggested that it seems obvious that demand for the SolarTurtle units would soon outstrip supply, Van der Walt tells me that one of the big problems with rolling these units out is training people how to make a success of them. He stresses that this is not a hand-out, it is a business opportunity.

There are possibilities of tie-ups with international organisations and companies that are producing energy under the country’s Renewable Energy Independent Power Producer Procurement Programme, but Van der Walt’s real focus now seems to be making the units work as micro-franchises, viable individual businesses that are supplying clean energy to their communities.

The software engineer in Van der Walt takes over here and asks me if I know what gamification is. He tells me he is going to write a software programme, a game, where people will “play the business”. Real life situations of a SolarTurtle owner will be simulated in the game, which people will play as a way of learning what is required. The game will also give Van der Walt a way of measuring people’s potential and suitability.

Van der Walt came up with this idea because, he says, people are less motivated by the idea of money than the immediate gratification of a computer game, especially people who have been off the grid for most of their lives. Now that sounds like a lovely and empowering game! – African News Agency