A Team of South African Scientists May Have Just Bested Google in the Race for Cost Effective Solar Energy

Researchers from Stellenbosch University are about to unveil a revolutionary model for affordable, transportable, concentrated solar power.

image via youtube screen capture

It’s not often you think of a mega corporation like Google (now: “Alphabet”) admit they’re probably not the best folks for the job. That, however, is exactly what happened when the tech giant announced they were putting the breaks on research into a specific, and potentially hugely-significant, method for generating solar power using heliostats: Fields of highly reflective mirrors, which swivel and rotate to constantly focus sunlight onto a centrally positioned receiving tower, using the sun’s energy to animate steam generators, thereby creating electricity.

Since 2007, Google’s “Renewable Energy Cheaper Than Coal” (RE<C) project had been looking into heliostat technology, and examining ways to make what was a hugely expensive form of generating solar energy more cost efficient and scalable. However, in 2011, Google announced they would be shuttering RE<C, and making its data available to other teams of researchers interested in expanding upon what their own scientists had already been developed. Citing the dramatic improvements in photovoltaic technology (that is: solar paneling) a Google release explained:

[W]e’ve reached a point in our engineering projects where we’re facing new challenges related to our solar receiver design. At this point, other institutions seem better positioned than Google to take this work to the next level. Therefore, we’ve retired our engineering work on RE<C and are sharing our key findings.

Fast forward to 2015. A team of researchers from South Africa’s Stellenbosch University are gearing up to unveil Helio100, a heliostat which they claim is modular, transportable, and perhaps most importantly, significantly cheaper than current models. In short: Everything Google’s researchers were working toward.

Paul Gauché founding director of Stellenbosch’s Solar Thermal Research Group, the team developing Helio100, spoke with The Guardian, explaining: “We are developing plonkable heliostats. Plonkable means that from factory to installation you can just drop them down on to the ground and they work”

While there are a number of large scale heliostat facilities worldwide, they are massive in both scale, and expense, with much of that cost being sunk in the initial construction of the machine. The Helio100, conversely, is designed to operate as a relatively small, localized installation, with significantly lower construction costs resulting from its modular, concrete-eschewing design. The initial pilot project consists of 100 reflective panels, each slightly larger than two square meters, capable of generating enough electricity for approximately ten households.

image via youtube screen capture

The technology is also created with its home country of South Africa specifically in mind. Technologist Athi Ntisana, who has worked on the project through multiple stages of its creation, says:

It requires labour, components can be manufactured here in the country and we have land here where sunlight is abundant – and that’s also where there is not much employment. It solves all these problems.

Given estimates that concentrated solar power such as the heliostat could generate as much as a quarter of the Earth’s electricity by 2050, the brains behind the Helio100 seem well positioned to place themselves, and their home country, ahead of the pack when it comes to this newly-re-energized green energy industry. For now, though, the Helio100 team is gearing up for an October, 2015 showcase, at which the project’s pilot installation will be unveiled.


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