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UNEXPECTED SOLAR THERMAL PARTNERSHIP CATALYSES GOVERNMENT COLLABORATION, SKILLS, INVESTMENT AND EMISSIONS TARGETS


One of the roles of the South African National Energy Development Institute (SANEDI) is to facilitate and coordinate renewable energy and energy efficiency research, development and demonstration through local and international cooperation, technology transfer and information exchange, leading to the deployment and commercialisation of sustainable, efficient, reliable, cost-competitive and environmentally sound renewable energy technologies.


The South African National Defence Force (SANDF) owns and operates multiple military bases across the country where, more often than not, entire communities of military families reside. Additionally, often the service infrastructure (water and energy) of small towns is located on these military bases and serves the needs of the complete community in the area. To this end, the SANDF has established a technical structure that supports maintenance and repair of these facilities. As can be expected, water and energy infrastructure and efficiency is paramount not only to smooth functioning of bases but also to the energy savings, emissions reduction targets and energy security.



SANEDI and the SANDF have been engaging on sustainable, potential renewable energy and energy efficiency solutions for the SANDF intensively since 2018. This led to the signing of a five-year Memorandum of Agreement (MoA), by the parties, to collaborate on specifically identified projects that has seen the implementation of pilot projects at a military base in Limpopo, in collaboration with the Solar Thermal Training and Demonstration Initiative (SOLTRAIN). SOLTRAIN is a regional initiative for capacity-building and demonstration of solar thermal systems in the SADC region, funded by the Austrian Development Agency and co-funded by the OPEC Fund for International Development.


SOLTRAIN demonstrates ways to utilise solar potential through solar thermal systems to significantly reduce electricity demand and CO2 emissions. Major adoption of these systems could lead to industry and associated skills development, and job creation if local assembly or manufacturing is stimulated. SOLTRAIN in South Africa is implemented by SANEDI and the Centre for Renewable and Sustainable Energy Studies at Stellenbosch University, in partnership with AEE-Institute for Sustainable Technologies (AEE INTEC) from Austria.


The SANDF spends a significant amount of money on running costs, maintenance and replacement of water heating hardware in its high density and domestic housing military bases across South Africa. This uniquely executed tri-way partnership has managed to deliver mutually beneficial outcomes, to all parties priorities, through technology implementation focussed on interdepartmental government collaboration and investment; skills development in the solar thermal sector through upskilling of military artisans; addressing of the governmental emissions targets through CO2 reduction and; has catalysed a knock-on effect of increased future investment in large scale solar thermal installations at housing and hospital SANDF facilities that serve not only military personnel but also government and civilians.


SANEDI, the SANDF and the SOLTRAIN collaborated in the implementation of two solar water heating systems at the Air Force Base in Hoedspruit, Limpopo Province, which has improved energy efficiency and acted as a catalyst for upskilling SANDF personnel. Two systems of 15m2 solar array collector area, and 1500L hot water storage, were installed at two buildings and operate through a well-insulated ring main unit which provides the added benefit of less water being wasted on waiting for a shower to heat up – hot water is almost instant in each of the 32 rooms once a tap is opened. Uniquely, cohabiting bush-life, including primates, as well climatic influences at Air Force Base Hoedspruit were part of the considerations in establishing the pumped solar thermal systems, designed to last up to 20 years with a reliability of supply.


To prepare SANDF members for the projects, SANEDI created awareness about renewable energy, energy efficiency and, more specifically, solar water heating at military units across Limpopo through half-day awareness training seminars. To ensure ongoing operation and maintenance of the solar thermal systems, specialised training was provided by SANEDI in partnership with Stellenbosch University to produce 45 artisans who have successfully completed a SOLTRAIN thermosiphon course and four who were intensively trained during system construction. These members were upskilled further and are transferring skills to other SANDF artisans, thus ensuring security of knowledge retention and a system maintenance autonomy for SANDF.


SANDF have noted that the reduction in costs and the improvement in the reliability of its hot water infrastructure were major accomplishments for the air force base, and that it was keen to learn more about other types of energy savings and reducing its impact on the environment due to emissions. SANEDI is confident that given the number of government and parastatal entities that own housing, this model of co-funding and support can be replicated to assist them in refurbishing viable properties



This first project implemented, through the SANEDI-SANDF collaboration, went live in May 2019 and, to July 2021, has realised a savings of approximately 490 300 kWh equating to an estimated R 981 000.00 (buildings not utilised to full capacity) and are expected to recoup the capital cost of the system, and associated maintenance and training, in less than 2 and a half years. After this period, supplying hot water to these 2 bungalows (each supporting 16 staff members) will be “FREE”, bar a minimal running cost of approximately R 16 000.00 per annum in comparison with a previous cost of R 150 000.00 (per bungalow). These numbers are current at the time of writing this article, thus this investment has proven to be extremely beneficial showing a projected Internal Rate of Return (IRR) of 33% and a Return On Investment (ROI) of 570% over the 20 year lifetime of the project.


These solar water heating systems reduced the use of electricity and backup diesel and enabled the SANDF to provide housing with functional hot water supplies under most conditions. Prior to the installation of the two solar systems, the military facility had defunct electrical hot water systems for their medical and training personnel residing in the two buildings. After being introduced to relevant information and technical possibilities provided by SANEDI and SOLTRAIN, SANDF took the initiative to green their energy consumption, reduce their carbon footprint and ensure security of supply. The project’s impact in South Africa was to establish a delivery model for public sector renewable energy project implementation.

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