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Why solar isn’t soaring

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Given the current power challenges South Africans face, it makes sense for many to make use of rooftop solar panels. However, the uptake has been really slow due to the installation price, ROI and problems linking the panels into the current electricity grid, writes KEVIN NORRIS and DAVE SMITH of the Jasco Group.

Given the current power challenges in South Africa, as well as a growing trend toward solutions for sustainable electricity, solar technology as a source of energy supply has become a hot topic, particularly for organisations wishing to reduce their reliance on utility power sources. Rooftop solar photovoltaic (PV) plants can help organisations generate their own power, and using grid tie inverter systems enables them to feed excess generated power back to the utility for use elsewhere. However, despite the benefits of such systems, there are two common challenges that have emerged. Firstly, PV plants are a costly investment, and the Return On Investment (ROI) has in the past taken many years to realise, although this is changing as the cost of installation reduces and electricity tariffs continue to increase. This makes obtaining funding for such systems difficult. Secondly, there remain several issues with the connection of solar plants to the main grid, which has slowed the uptake of these solutions. Addressing these challenges is key to harnessing the power of the sun as an alternate, sustainable energy source.

Grid tie solar systems are the simplest and most cost effective method for utilising solar energy as a replacement for day-to-day power requirements. On a very basic level, the grid tie invertor converts the direct current (DC) power generated by solar panels, into the alternating current (AC), and injects this AC current into the existing load. Any excess energy is then fed into the power distribution network. The inverter is also able to ensure that energy requirements are drawn from available solar power first, and only utilise utility supply should there be a solar shortfall. This system does not necessarily require a battery for energy storage, although this will extend functionality, so the installation is very simple and efficient, and maintenance is low. However, while the cost of manufacturing solar PV panels and grid tie inverters has reduced over the past few years, as a result of increased demand, greater economies of scale and technological advancements, solar remains a costly solution to implement. The high cost of raw materials and the high-tech conditions required for the manufacture of components keep these solutions out of reach of the average homeowner or business.

Justifying this investment is often one of the biggest challenges to the implementation of solar power solutions, and obtaining loans and funding is typically a difficult sell. ROI takes a few years to realise, and the investment will only typically pay for itself within six to 10 years. The rate of return is dependent on a number of factors, including the type of installation and the existing tariff with the utility. However, what needs to be kept in mind is that solar PV systems have a predictable performance curve of 25 years and a usable life of 35 years. In addition, using a grid tie inverter system, homeowners and businesses will one day be able to feed excess power back to the grid, either offsetting this against utilisation costs or selling this power to the utility provider. PV systems therefore should not be seen as a depreciating asset. They are in fact an asset that not only reduces current costs, but in the long run could be a significant income generator for the owner.

To quantify this value is a relatively simple mathematical exercise with the assistance of financial models. In 2015 the average cost of electricity per kilowatt-hour (kWh) is similar to the Lifecycle Levelised Cost of Energy (LLCE) of a typical grid tie system at around R1.00 per kWh. This means that, calculated over the complete guaranteed performance lifespan of the panels (approximately 25 years), the cost per kWh from a solar PV system will be similar to the municipal cost in 2015. Going forward the cost of electricity from the utility is very likely to increase significantly year on year, while the cost of the installed PV system will remain at its installed price plus the minimal cost of maintenance. If you look at this over the next 10 years, your cost of solar generation would be around R1.00 per kWh, while the utility cost is forecast to be as high as R3.50 per kWh.

This same trend is likely to continue over the lifespan of the solar PV system. If you project these increases over the 25-year period, the cost difference between now and then would be significant. Effectively, within this period, the solar PV solution could still be generating electricity at R1.00 per kWh, whereas by that stage the cost of utility power will doubtless have increased many times. It is these future differences in the cost of energy between the utility costs and the fixed solar PV cost that should be recognised as part of the long-term sustainability of owning such an asset. Additionally, in most cases the asset is attached to a building and would result in improved valuation of the building. Not only does this have a positive financial implication, it also has an environmental implication, especially when one considers the Carbon Tax that will be levied as of 2016. The only way to negate the carbon tax is to either recycle or produce “Green kWh” from a renewable source like solar PV.

In order to drive adoption of solar PV solutions, it is necessary for financial institutions to recognise their value and assist businesses and homeowners with funding these systems. Forward-thinking financial institutions should look to leverage the security of a loan for solar PV power against the asset itself, as it will pay for itself many times over in years to come. The asset could also be recognised as part of the building itself and be financed utilising an extension of the building bond. In addition, government needs to come on board by assisting financial institutions with tax rebates for their efforts in financing Solar PV systems. This is sound strategy, as by funding these systems, financial institutions are contributing to the overall reduction in carbon output and, more importantly, helping to resolving the country’s current energy shortages.

In addition to funding, connecting to the utility remains a challenge. One of the most pressing issues is the nature of pure solar solutions (without energy storage capability), in that they are only able to produce energy during daylight hours, and the energy must be used or dumped. For the majority of residential applications where nobody is at home during the day, this generated power will be wasted if a solution to feed this power back into the grid cannot be resolved. Connection codes therefore need to be finalised, and metering for two-way energy flow needs to be implemented. It is also important to find a solution to the problem of optimising the use of all renewable energy generated to the advantage of both the end-user and the utility providers.

The concept of net metering, whereby users sell their excess renewable energy back to the utility for credit and utilise these credits when the renewable source experiences shortfall (such as at night when there is no sun to power solar PV systems) is one that has great potential to benefit all parties concerned. For most residential applications, this form of energy trading works well. Some utilities may limit the amount of energy you can sell back for credits to the amount of utility energy used (i.e. if you use 2,000 kWh per month, than you may only sell back a maximum of 2,000 kWh per month). Another system would be to annualise this amount, enabling owners to make better use of the credits throughout the year, such as in winter where generation may not match overall consumption.

Theoretically, users could manage consumption and generation of energy to a zero balance and not have to spend a cent on energy from the utility for the year. This idea in principle is appealing, particularly for consumers and business, however for utilities this could cause problems. If renewable energy customers are not paying what they used to pay for electricity, but rather supplementing their own power generation with utility power, how does the utility find revenue to pay for the maintenance of the generation, transmission and distribution network the entire system uses? Feed in tariffs have been suggested as one solution to this problem, whereby the utility purchases the excess energy from providers, while users still purchase utility power, and there is no obligation to consume at the same rate as you sell energy.

Regardless of the challenges involved, solar PV remains the most viable and cost effective alternate energy source for South Africa, a country that experiences significant hours of sunshine for much of the year in the majority of its regions. If these problems can be satisfactorily resolved and solar becomes a mainstream power generation source, not just for the utility but for business and homeowners too, the currently bleak power prospects of South Africa may have a brighter future after all.

* Kevin Norris, Consulting Solutions Architect, Renewable Energy, and Dave Smith, Managing Director, Renewable Energy, The Jasco Group

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Prepare your cam to capture the Blood Moon

On 27 July 2018, South Africans can witness a total lunar eclipse, as the earth’s shadow completely covers the moon.

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Also known as a blood or red moon, a total lunar eclipse is the most dramatic of all lunar eclipses and presents an exciting photographic opportunity for any aspiring photographer or would-be astronomers.

“A lunar eclipse is a rare cosmic sight. For centuries these events have inspired wonder, interest and sometimes fear amongst observers. Of course, if you are lucky to be around when one occurs, you would want to capture it all on camera,” says Dana Eitzen, Corporate and Marketing Communications Executive at Canon South Africa.

Canon ambassador and acclaimed landscape photographer David Noton has provided his top tips to keep in mind when photographing this occasion.   In South Africa, the eclipse will be visible from about 19h14 on Friday, 27 July until 01h28 on the Saturday morning. The lunar eclipse will see the light from the sun blocked by the earth as it passes in front of the moon. The moon will turn red because of an effect known as Rayleigh Scattering, where bands of green and violet light become filtered through the atmosphere.

A partial eclipse will begin at 20h24 when the moon will start to turn red. The total eclipse begins at about 21h30 when the moon is completely red. The eclipse reaches its maximum at 22h21 when the moon is closest to the centre of the shadow.

David Noton advises:

  1. Download the right apps to be in-the-know

The sun’s position in the sky at any given time of day varies massively with latitude and season. That is not the case with the moon as its passage through the heavens is governed by its complex elliptical orbit of the earth. That orbit results in monthly, rather than seasonal variations, as the moon moves through its lunar cycle. The result is big differences in the timing of its appearance and its trajectory through the sky. Luckily, we no longer need to rely on weight tables to consult the behaviour of the moon, we can simply download an app on to our phone. The Photographer’s Ephemeris is useful for giving moonrise and moonset times, bearings and phases; while the Photopills app gives comprehensive information on the position of the moon in our sky.  Armed with these two apps, I’m planning to shoot the Blood Moon rising in Dorset, England. I’m aiming to capture the moon within the first fifteen minutes of moonrise so I can catch it low in the sky and juxtapose it against an object on the horizon line for scale – this could be as simple as a tree on a hill.

 

  1. Invest in a lens with optimal zoom  

On the 27th July, one of the key challenges we’ll face is shooting the moon large in the frame so we can see every crater on the asteroid pockmarked surface. It’s a task normally reserved for astronomers with super powerful telescopes, but if you’ve got a long telephoto lens on a full frame DSLR with around 600 mm of focal length, it can be done, depending on the composition. I will be using the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV with an EF 200-400mm f/4L IS USM Ext. 1.4 x lens.

  1. Use a tripod to capture the intimate details

As you frame up your shot, one thing will become immediately apparent; lunar tracking is incredibly challenging as the moon moves through the sky surprisingly quickly. As you’ll be using a long lens for this shoot, it’s important to invest in a sturdy tripod to help capture the best possible image. Although it will be tempting to take the shot by hand, it’s important to remember that your subject is over 384,000km away from you and even with a high shutter speed, the slightest of movements will become exaggerated.

  1. Integrate the moon into your landscape

Whilst images of the moon large in the frame can be beautifully detailed, they are essentially astronomical in their appeal. Personally, I’m far more drawn to using the lunar allure as an element in my landscapes, or using the moonlight as a light source. The latter is difficult, as the amount of light the moon reflects is tiny, whilst the lunar surface is so bright by comparison. Up to now, night photography meant long, long exposures but with cameras such as the Canon EOS-1D X Mark II and the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV now capable of astonishing low light performance, a whole new nocturnal world of opportunities has been opened to photographers.

  1. Master the shutter speed for your subject 

The most evocative and genuine use of the moon in landscape portraits results from situations when the light on the moon balances with the twilight in the surrounding sky. Such images have a subtle appeal, mood and believability.  By definition, any scene incorporating a medium or wide-angle view is going to render the moon as a tiny pin prick of light, but its presence will still be felt. Our eyes naturally gravitate to it, however insignificant it may seem. Of course, the issue of shutter speed is always there; too slow an exposure and all we’ll see is an unsightly lunar streak, even with a wide-angle lens.

 

On a clear night, mastering the shutter speed of your camera is integral to capturing the moon – exposing at 1/250 sec @ f8 ISO 100 (depending on focal length) is what you’ll need to stop the motion from blurring and if you are to get the technique right, with the high quality of cameras such as the Canon EOS 5DS R, you might even be able to see the twelve cameras that were left up there by NASA in the 60’s!

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How Africa can embrace AI

Currently, no African country is among the top 10 countries expected to benefit most from AI and automation. But, the continent has the potential to catch up with the rest of world if we act fast, says ZOAIB HOOSEN, Microsoft Managing Director.

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To play catch up, we must take advantage of our best and most powerful resource – our human capital. According to a report by the World Economic Forum (WEF), more than 60 percent of the population in sub-Saharan Africa is under the age of 25.

These are the people who are poised to create a future where humans and AI can work together for the good of society. In fact, the most recent WEF Global Shapers survey found that almost 80 percent of youth believe technology like AI is creating jobs rather than destroying them.

Staying ahead of the trends to stay employed

AI developments are expected to impact existing jobs, as AI can replicate certain activities at greater speed and scale. In some areas, AI could learn faster than humans, if not yet as deeply.

According to Gartner, while AI will improve the productivity of many jobs and create millions more new positions, it could impact many others. The simpler and less creative the job, the earlier, a bot for example, could replace it.

It’s important to stay ahead of the trends and find opportunities to expand our knowledge and skills while learning how to work more closely and symbiotically with technology.

Another global study by Accenture, found that the adoption of AI will create several new job categories requiring important and yet surprising skills. These include trainers, who are tasked with teaching AI systems how to perform; explainers, who bridge the gap between technologist and business leader; and sustainers, who ensure that AI systems are operating as designed.

It’s clear that successfully integrating human intelligence with AI, so they co-exist in a two-way learning relationship, will become more critical than ever.

Combining STEM with the arts

Young people have a leg up on those already in the working world because they can easily develop the necessary skills for these new roles. It’s therefore essential that our education system constantly evolves to equip youth with the right skills and way of thinking to be successful in jobs that may not even exist yet.

As the division of tasks between man and machine changes, we must re-evaluate the type of knowledge and skills imparted to future generations.

For example, technical skills will be required to design and implement AI systems, but interpersonal skills, creativity and emotional intelligence will also become crucial in giving humans an advantage over machines.

“At one level, AI will require that even more people specialise in digital skills and data science. But skilling-up for an AI-powered world involves more than science, technology, engineering and math. As computers behave more like humans, the social sciences and humanities will become even more important. Languages, art, history, economics, ethics, philosophy, psychology and human development courses can teach critical, philosophical and ethics-based skills that will be instrumental in the development and management of AI solutions.” This is according to Microsoft president, Brad Smith, and EVP of AI and research, Harry Shum, who recently authored the book “The Future Computed”, which primarily deals with AI and its role in society.

Interestingly, institutions like Stanford University are already implementing this forward-thinking approach. The university offers a programme called CS+X, which integrates its computer science degree with humanities degrees, resulting in a Bachelor of Arts and Science qualification.

Revisiting laws and regulation

For this type of evolution to happen, the onus is on policy makers to revisit current laws and even bring in new regulations. Policy makers need to identify the groups most at risk of losing their jobs and create strategies to reintegrate them into the economy.

Simultaneously, though AI could be hugely beneficial in areas such as curbing poor access to healthcare and improving diagnoses for example, physicians may avoid using this technology for fear of malpractice. To avoid this, we need regulation that closes the gap between the pace of technological change and that of regulatory response. It will also become essential to develop a code of ethics for this new ecosystem.

Preparing for the future

With the recent convergence of a transformative set of technologies, economies are entering a period in which AI has the potential overcome physical limitations and open up new sources of value and growth.

To avoid missing out on this opportunity, policy makers and business leaders must prepare for, and work toward, a future with AI. We must do so not with the idea that AI is simply another productivity enhancer. Rather, we must see AI as the tool that can transform our thinking about how growth is created.

It comes down to a choice of our people and economies being part of the technological disruption, or being left behind.

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