Solar power breakthrough

Thanks to Muti, I came across an article from IOL announcing a solar power breakthrough pioneered by South African researchers.

The article claimed that the new panels will allow a house to receive all of its electricity from the solar panels, even in winter, and that the panels will be available in South Africa within a year. They are much cheaper and much more efficient than the existing solar panels.

That’s fantastic news if everything is as claimed. With Jhb and Cape Town having suffered frequent power failures recently, and the nuke proponents in full flight once again, some progress in renewables is sorely needed.

Being a cautious type, before I set up my IT business in the Karoo, far from Eskom’s lines, I tried to find some other corraborating sources. The article (originally from the Weekend Argus) is rather over-the-top, and reads more as a press release than serious scientific reporting. It’s easy to be cynical. Scientists need to generate noise to get funding, and promising the next big thing is a surefire way of getting attention. I’ve also no idea of what happens at night time, whether sufficient energy can be stored, or alternative sources are required. Googling for the term solar breakthrough gives a good indication of the abuse of the term. Or a big oil company could come along and buy the whole thing, sticking it in a vault while they milk the dying planet of the last of its oil.

However, the leader of the team, Professor Vivian Alberts from Johannesburg University has been in the field for a long time, and seems to have built up quite a track record. In 2004 there was a lot of noise about a big breakthrough, with production estimated within three years. Since it’s now estimated at 1 year, that means everything is still on track. Reports from 2004 came from Science in Africa and the SABC, amongst others. IAfrica has a good article from October 2005 that looks at some of the economics.

Ordinary solar panels are 350 microns thick, while the new method means they can be 5 microns thick. That doesn’t mean much on its own, but in this case it means its much cheaper to product. Not only that, it’s more efficient. So, on a commercial scale, old solar panels produced 50 W at a cost of about R2100. New panels produce 60 W at a cost of R650. Quite a dramatic increase that suddenly make solar very viable. How does that compare to other sources? These next figures are gleaned from a bit of rough research, sources don’t really match up, and of course there’s lots of vested interest research in all these figures. I don’t really know the details , so don’t trust anything quoted here entirely 🙂 One source claims that this means that solar energy can be generated at a cost of 50c/kWh (SA currency used throughout).

Apparently wind energy costs 30c/KWh in the US (with a subsidy), and until now wind has always been seen as the most cost-effective renewable energy, so coming in under this is a big step forward for solar. It’s tricky to make fair comparisons, as the calculation is relatively complex, and of course affected by the capital costs of building the power stations, so I didn’t manage to find reliable figures for the others. But Earthlife publish a good, though dated, investigation of how existing nuclear power stations rely on massive subsidies to be in the slightest bit viable.

At least it looks like exciting times ahead. I’ve always believed that the correct way forward is not massive, centralised sources, but decentralisation. Each household being able to generate its own power will be a wonderful achievement.


  1. am in need of solar panels for domestic lighting and heating. Please Rob if you still selling I will contact you.

  2. I am looking to market solar power to farmers in my area and am in need of a reliable and reputable supplier of solar components. I also need a bit of training in this field. Can anyone help? Pls email me on

  3. I am looking to start my own IPP on my farm and sell back to eskom does any one know the steps involved and possibly the suppliers i can contact in order to get this on the go.

  4. I found this at the UJ website ( copy and paste )

    SASOL is expected to announce the go-ahead of a large plant to make thin-film solar energy panels based on technology developed by Professor Vivian Alberts of the Urnversity of Johannesburg.

  5. i have a large project to install these solar panels to a settlement in tabina limpopo. my adress is knows a good price and is looking for a bussiness venture???. must know about power consumption and how the whole system works.

  6. does anybody know what the Refit price is for energy generated “privately” and fed into the grid? Would one need a generating license if you were to start up a solar power station privately?

  7. cant find decent electric panels for decent prices.only for rich people.33rand per watt is the best price i can find so far for a grade panel.will prices come down in near future.let me know.thanks

  8. Can someone please advise me on the best all round brand of solar panels and nessacary equipment available in SA to power an average 3 bedroom residental home. My husband and myslef run a company building Timber Homes based in Natal and we would be interested in becoming agents for solar panels as well as installing our own home with solar power. Look forward to your comments.

  9. Bridget,

    Powering an ‘average’ 3 bedroom home can cost more money than you can count. Making it affordable requires a lifestyle adjustment.

    All heating should be done with solar water or gas.

    The most critical and expensive part is the battery and it’s management. Cheap batteries will not last long.

    Your best Rand/Watt value is currently from Sanyo 200W panels, and you need a good number of them.

    You also require a good quality charger and inverter, as well as a backup generator and charger for rainy periods.

    Don’t bother with R299 14W panels, they will give you 9W at best and usually 6W, waste of time and money for your purpose.

    Don’t take this personally, but no-one without proper technical expertise and experience should ever be an agent for these products. There is more to it than you may imagine, and much disappointment results from improper advice.

  10. Helmut,
    You said a lot of thinks without saying anything.
    First – Powering an ‘average’ 3 bedroom home can cost more money than you can count. What do you meant?
    It will cost more or less what, R2, R2000, R20 000, R200 000,R2 000 000.It would be nice if somebody who seems to now whould give us some figures.
    Secondly – you gave no indication of the rand/watt value of the Sanyo 200W panels.You need a good number of them (again 10, 100, 1000)
    Thirdly – You don’t need a backup generator if you can just flip a switch and use Eskom power when needed.
    Lastly – No-one without proper technical expertise and experience should ever be an agent for these products.
    Who would make someone an agent without giving him proper technical expertise and experience?
    That is why questions are asked this page so people can
    understand a new product better.

  11. Jaco, there is no need to be tetchy.

    I was answering Bridgets very general questions in a very general manner. Read the question again. It made no reference to Escom. How much power does an average 3 bedroom home use ? What is the profile ? How many people live in it ? How many children ? How many freezers, fridges, washing machines, Computers, printers, TV’s, hifi’s etc etc are used. What is each ones power rating ? On and on. How many sunshine days are in your area/year ? The number of variables in even guessing a Rand figure, or how many panels and batteries and their topology is vast. I know from living off-grid for ten years that a good number of panels are required for even the basics. A 2kW array will, for the average homeowner, require an adjustment of lifestyle. I would do no-one a favour by making such a guess.

    Solar as an addendum to Escom is entirely different to ‘powering a home off solar’.

    Bridget did not ask me for the Rand/Watt value, she asked about the best all round brand. I mentioned the brand that I have measured and experienced to provide me with the most power and longest lifetime for my Rand.

    As regards providing a quote on behalf of other companies, that’s just silly. I gave a well informed hint which you could easily have followed up in the time it took to formulate your response.

    No-one can give anyone experience, that is acquired through personal application and development of skill. Proper understanding of this rechnology requires engineering skills.

    Solar technology is not at all new, silicon solar panels have been around for many decades and so have batteries.

    In short, the only way to answer this question is by conducting a thorough survey, which requires time and skill, anything less renders a disservice.

    And Jaco, your R299 14.8 Watt panel is by no means a-grade. It is very in-efficient and does not have a 20 or even 10 year lifespan. That is the kind of advice which leads to disappointment.

  12. Again, you answer the question as if you have the info
    but without giving any.

    You should go into politics.

    If you are living off-grid for ten years you are exactly the person to make a guess.
    Something like I have so many freezers, fridges, washing machines, Computers, printers, TV’s, hifi’s etc and have a 2kW array and if works perfectly or you don’t have power half the night.

    Solar technology is new for most people and the system from decades ago can not be compared to system from today especially the batteries. That is like comparing a longdrop with a flush toilet. Most people only now take notice because it will become cheaper than using Eskom
    if Eskom gets it increases.

    I’ll find out more about the R299 14.8w panel and post it here so you can make a more informed ripoff of the panel.
    If was just and add a saw in Beeld, thats all.

  13. Jaco, I don’t owe you anything.

    I have given you plenty of passela information which you have lambasted. That information has cost me blood, sweat and tears to acquire and can save you much.

    You don’t inspire me to throw my talents to the sows.

    My resources are much better applied elsewhere.

  14. MEANWHILE, guys, there seems to have been a positive development. See here:


    Three years ago Alberts was making bullish predictions about the cost viability of CIGS. It would be interesting to hear projected cost comparisons for 2013, once Eskom’s third consecutive 32% increase has kicked in.

  15. As someone who is also interested in obtaining energy from something else than Eskom, I have read tons of websites regarding alternative energy. I am still confused as a chameleon in a smartie box.

    I have to concur with Helmut and say that there is just to many variables to consider, to answer these questions being asked here, in a blog format. One can give a “simple” answer like he tried to do or one can get very technical and provide hundreds of formulas to provide scientific evidence.

    The whole energy situation is a lot like the crime situation. 1. A very unwanted expenditure and 2. the more the you spend the better your solution.

    There is not one straight forward answer that fits all or most situations.

    The thing that I find the saddest is that the human race must first run into a crisis before they decide to stop being wastefull in their ways and preserve more for the next generation!

  16. After reading this blog I agree with Helmut. This Jaco Kruger guy sounds like the idiot that needs to be in parlament.

    In order to make a proper assesment of a persons situation requires carefull assessment of that persons needs, resources and location.

    A propper company wil come out and do a sight and load assessment in order to find out your consumption, as well as physical location of the building, roof pitch and aspect. Generally they will charge money for this which will be written off against the final cost of the instalation if the quotation is accepted.

    Generally retail cost for silicone PV modules is in the regeon of R25 – R30 per watt. Installed cost will depend greatly on the quality of the battery but will be in the regeon of R53-40per watt. Totol watt peak requirment will be determined by the contractor who will do the load assesment

  17. James

    I was looking for info from somebody that could and did an installation. There are websites that you can use to do a load assessment and decide if it is a option to explore. Most people are not the diy type and should us a contractor but some people can do things themselves.
    Power from solar panels are more complicated than something like solar water heating that can definitely be done by a diy addict.
    There is not much info on diy solar panel installation
    because it is mostly an option for the rich only and the rich do not climb on a roof, they just pay somebody else to do it.
    Solar panel insallation will become diy in South Africa like solar heating installation already is.

  18. I also agree with Helmut. It’s a question of budget and case-by-case requirement. If you’re completely off-grid, the more you spend on batteries, the more available power you will have to last you in the rainy season. (A cheap generator might be a viable way to offset the prohibitive cost of batteries, though; but not your carbon footprint.)

    I don’t have any direct experience with solar installations, but I did do a bit of research into it, and might be able to place an order when I need to. It’s not hard to do for yourself. Installing and actually wiring up series of panels and batteries to inverters and mains feed-in, though, would be an extremely daunting undertaking for most people.

    Prices should come down before the kW/hr rate of Eskom’s becomes totally unaffordable, I guess. TFT and new developments with nano-particles and tubes should see significant price reductions in the medium term. (20 Years?)

    I’m also not going out of my way to cite sources or recheck my estimates, but I recall that in California, powering a large family house with ±6kW/hr per day with an IPP grid feed-in and no stand-by battery backup was costing in the region of $30,000 – $40,000. Excluding the rebate.

    Some indication of local prices for ±3kW/hr per day with ~4 days battery backup came out at R200 – R300,000 when I researched them a year ago.

    The really important factor is not cost per kW, but cost per kW/hr. So it’s the cost of the panels and the batteries amortized over their lifetime.

    Eskom currently charge:

    Service charge R2.45 per day
    Network Charge R3.04 per day
    Environmental levy R0.02 per day

    and roughly 50c per kW/hr.

    An educated guess for a small household, with say 1 freezer, 1 fridge, kettle, iron, overnight lights, computers, TV, etc.. but alternative water heating and cooking, is about 600kW/hr per month, totaling about R300 tariff + R200 service fees.

    With a bit of lifestyle adjustment one could conceivably get away with a 3kVA inverter and suitable array. A system that should keep you in power for about 4 days without sunshine could look something like this.

    15 x 160w panels @ *guess* R7,000 each
    8 x 6v, 1600 A/hr batteries @ *guess* R7,000 each
    1 x 3kVA inverter @ *guess* R20,000

    Equals about R181,000 excluding installation.

    A 20 year lifespan on the panels and inverter, and a 6 year life on the batteries will give you a rough cost of 181,000/((20+6)/2)


    181,000 / 13 years

    which is an average cost of R13,923 a year… or in other words more than twice what Eskom is currently costing… with the service charges factored in.

    This is a general indication (for Jaco Kruger and co) with dodgy math from cursory extrapolations from over a year ago; so I make no claim to accuracy.

    Kindly correct me if I’m misunderstanding something.

  19. Jeff

    Thanks for all the info.
    It seems that solar power is not worth it at the moment.
    To cut the cost of you electric bill by about 35% on the average house if you go to solar waterheating and more if you are already on energy saving bulbs etc.
    You can have a new installation for about R12000 or a Kwikhot conversion for about R9000(you can even get a rebate for Eskom of about R2000 but if would probably take forever to get).
    If you have a electric bill of about R1500 then you will start saving in under 2 years. your saving will thien be more than you are payng now if Eskom gets it increases.

  20. Hi all

    I started reading at the top and then flipped down to the bottom, so I hope I’m not asking a question that has already been answered.

    We are involved in an outreach program in a very remote area in Botswana without access to the BPC grid and one of their needs is a “new” solar pannel system. I read about the thin film technology and apparently the plant is currently being built in Paarl and will only be operational by Q4 2010. I would prefer going the thin film route, rather than the other way, since it is supposed to be a lot cheaper.

    The problem is, we need the system much earlier than Q4 10, so can anyone recommend a company or a site comparing companies or systems where we can get an idea of costs. We already have a quote, but it is really expensive and we depend on donations for this.

  21. Karin

    I think you need to get in touch with the University of Johannesburg’s PR department and do a hard sell on them: even if Prof Alberts’s Paarl plant can’t roll out before Q4 next year, they should be able to set you up with units sourced from Johanna-Solar, the German company said to be making the panels for the European market. If Johanna-Solar IS already successfully making and marketing the systems, they would surely not pass up a golden global PR opposrtunity. Helping your programme out should earn equal kudos for UJ and Prof Alberts. It’s an ideal opportunity to show off the technology in practice, and get some idea of cost ramifications … if Eskom gets its 45% increase three years in a row, surely that must impact strongly on the economic viability of the panels. If I were you I would copy all correspondence with UJ to Johanna-Solar: Their PR person is Heide Traemann (… after asking them whether they ARE delivering the UJ-developed CIGSSe systems yet?

    Good luck

  22. Hello Karin,

    You can also have a look at Sanyo S.A.’s website: there is some useful information on their site with respect to their HIT Solar technology and being a Japanese product, they are of substantial quality. Their offices are in Paulshoff, Sandton.

    I think the engineer to speak to at Sanyo is “Win”. Maybe try and give them a shout i’m sure they’ll be of assistance to you.

    Good luck.

  23. Thanks Trevor. I’ve had a few delays on my side so things are progressing very slowly. I hope to be back on track early in 2010. Will contact Sanyo as well and will give feedback on this.

    Thanks again


  24. I have done a cost comparison for solar water heating and on my R 245 pm electricity bill, the current purchasing and installation costs it makes the pay back period too long.
    I have the same problem with gas. The present purchase price for gas in a 9 kg bottle is R 1.37 per kWh, but is it really that much more efficient?

  25. Hello, I have read some coments here and some people have no idea or limited technical back rounds and are now saying its not worth it, my house runs on R100 a month, i have fitted solar panels that give me power when eskom is in the dark, the system worked so well i have started a small compnay and design systems for holiday houses and large houses in the city to farms it does work if done right!!!!

  26. Hi Grant I am interested to start my own company to install
    solar panels at homes in West coast aria. Are you willing to talk business with me?

  27. Hi Everybody!! Thanks for the wonderfull info. Eskom ****, if you know what I mean. Busy setting up my solar system now. Got one 80W and one 10W solar panel. Battery is 110Ah. Inverters, one 300W and one 150W. Hope this will carry my lighting.

    Cheers 🙂

  28. I loved the comments by “The Alien Factor” as that sums up the situation in SA for any assistance to rural indigent. With four successive Eishcom (Paincom, Vleiscom…you choose) increases in the region of 30% from 2009 to 2012 all South African citz paying tax will be supporting 20 Million indigents (same as govt. is doing with taxes in the form of grants)and it won’t end there. Between taxes and crime, the Rand earning citizen of this country will become poorer. And you will never build a wealthy nation by taking from the Haves to give to the HaveLots (Malemas etc??) and Havenots!

    The solution is to get off the grid, out of the city and be independent (as far as the Municipal Rates Act will allow) to grow your own food, generate your own power and be happy. We have been busy for 5 years on our project to become self sustainable and we are 70% there at a rough estimate. We want to be making our own diesel by 2011.

    To be power independent is to have a mix of systems to make power. Must have a descent generator running at 1500rpm max, at least one good wind turbine (buy Kestrel from PE), as much Solar panels as you can afford, gas for heating and cooking, build a fire water heater combined with gas, build a gas digester to make biogas (which you can use to power both your bakkie and you generator by the way!) and if you are as lucky as we are to have water in abundance (3 springs) then build water wheels to drive small generators (1kW each say) and before you know it the government lethargy and ineptitude won’t be a pain the *ss anymore.

    Engineer your way to freedom by thinking, asking and working your plan to success!! I love my country and I like living in it – but that does not mean I have to pay others for their survival. And we are only two people in our retired household (but have age on our side as we are 98 years collectively.)

    Anything is possible is you really want it! Peace of Mind was our choice.

  29. I am in Joburg originally from Transkei Eastern Cape i would love to purchase the solar kit for my home but where?

  30. Some very useful comments above (and some not so useful verbal sparring as well). I’ve started company in Cape Town doing solar water heating. As far as I can tell this is the most financially viable renewable energy option for people who are staying on the grid. Especially now that Eskom have doubled the rebates. However, I am keeping my eye on the wind and solar PV spaces, which I think will become a lot more viable once the regulators allow us to feed electricity back into the grid.

  31. Hi All
    We have got solar panels,regulators,batteries etc. @ the lowest prices possible. Feel free to contact me

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