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De Aar, South Africa (CNN)In the sleepy, sun-blasted town of De Aar in central South Africa, a mighty force is stirring.

The largest solar plant in Africa, Middle East and the Southern hemisphere was inaugurated here earlier this year, a 175-megawatt facility that spreads over almost 500 hectares.
The facility is the brainchild of Solar Capital, led by hotel magnate turned solar evangelist Paschal Phelan, which ploughed $400 million into the venture.
The plant supplies power to the National Grid, but when the heat is fiercest it produces far more than the Grid can use, and the excess power goes to waste.
“It’s like you have a Ferrari and you run a small car,” says Massimiliano Salaorno, plant manager of Solar Capital De Aar.

Breaking through

Solar and wind power account for just 2% of South Africa’s energy needs, according to research from the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR).
But experts argue this represents encouraging progress.
“It is still relatively small but we have to see where we came from,” says Dr. Tobias Bischof-Niemz, head of energy at the CISR. “Just two or three years ago we had 0% of renewables on the grid…and to bring (the proportion) to 2.5% is actually quite fast.”
South Africa has the capacity to produce 45,000 megawatts of power, the largest capacity in Africa. But even greater demand has led to ongoing blackouts, and the government is supporting a wave of renewable energy projects as part of its response.
The cost of renewable energy is 40% less than coal, says Dr. Bischof-Niemz, and he sees potential for rapid advances.
“We can go for a 70% renewable energy share by 2040 at the lowest cost,” he says.

The path ahead

Renewable sources will not solve South Africa’s energy shortage alone. Two new coal plants are imminent, and there are plans to build nuclear energy capacity.
Solar facilities such De Aar will also require greater resources to flourish. Solar Capital has been forced to import solar panels and Phelan is determined to build domestic capacity.
“(We have imported) 700,000 panels for this farm alone and in terms of volume it is only going to increase,” he says. “I reckon we can produce 75,000 jobs based on manufacturing these simple items here.”
The plant is already producing 15% profits per year, the CEO says, with vastly more potential for growth.
As South Africa’s green energy revolution accelerates, De Aar is providing the engine.

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