An electrifying future
A massive solar park in the Northern Cape and an electric vehicle built in Krugersdorp … JACO DE KLERK discovers that South Africa’s sustainable energy solutions are rising up from the most unexpected places.
The southern tip of the “dark continent” is shining brightly as construction has started on South African soil of what will be the largest solar park worldwide, once it’s been completed. This “African dream” was established in 2010 after the Clinton Climate Initiative (CCI), on behalf of the Department of Energy, completed a pre-feasibility study that revealed a potential 5 000 megawatt capacity for this Solar Park Initiative.
South Africa receives 2 500 hours of sunshine annually, amounting to four entire months or one third of the year (including nighttime hours) … Our country also ranks third globally in terms of being a suitable solar location.
However, the CCI narrowed things down, recognising the Northern Cape as being the best area in terms of solar irradiation in the country. The province also has flat and sparsely-populated land, the ability to connect to the electricity grid at multiple points and readily available water from the Orange River.
Several potential sites were identified in this province, which include two sites in Upington, two in Groblershoop, one in Prieska, and another in De Aar. These have been collectively dubbed the Northern Cape Solar Park Corridor. “The Solar Park will adopt a corridor design methodology,” Minister of Energy Dipuo Peters explains. “It is worth emphasising that the programme will be rolled-out in different phases.”
It is predicted that the first phase will deliver 1 000 megawatts, which was scheduled to be operational last year. However, due to some unforeseen circumstances, the project’s new deadline for producing its first solar power has been moved to 2016 or 2017. “It is true that our intention was to start at Upington, but we experienced challenges with land accessibility and we decided to start in Prieska instead, while resolving matters in Upington,” Peters points out.
So, there have been a few hiccups, but South Africa is on its way to becoming a major sustainable energy producer. And if we combine the benefits of solar-powered electricity with electric cars, we’re getting twee vlieë met een klap (two flies with one smack, but the correct English idiom would be “two birds with one stone”).
Enter Freedom Won – the proudly South African klap to the nastiness of fuel combustion mobility. This company is owned and operated by a visionary engineer and like-minded entrepreneur, who are both passionate about making economical, safe and environmentally friendly converted electric vehicles (EVs) available to the public at realistic prices.
“The adoption of our EV will initially be supported by a focused philosophy of bringing the concept to market without massive upfront investment in mass production plans and heavy reliance on government subsidies,” explains Lizette Kriel, the like-minded entrepreneur. “We thus developed the technology to allow for easy conversion of conventional cars to electric power using our custom-designed conversion model.”
And the model is proving to be very effective as the company’s prototype EV conversion has been refined by the team for over a year. “We have been testing it now for 18 months and have encountered a few minor issues, but we’ve got to the point where it is extremely reliable and effective,” notes Antony English, co-founder and owner of Freedom Won. “We use it every single day.”
He adds that the vehicle does a 120 km round trip from Krugersdorp, on Gauteng’s West Rand, to Centurion, south of Pretoria and back for English’s employment commute to the Anglo American Kenmare Resources offices. He’s been employed in project engineering and management within the mineral processing sector for the past 12 years.
After graduating as an electro-mechanical engineer, with honours, in 1999 – which followed a childhood of dissecting electronics and various mechanics out of interest – and putting in more than a 1 000 hours on weekends and after hours in his small workshop, since 2009, English brought a vision to life in the form of Freedom1 – his and Kriel’s own Jeep Grand Cherokee and the company’s first pure electric prototype.
The vehicle has an upgraded suspension, which easily handles the 200 kg net weight increase of the conversion. This entails: the removal of the combustion engine, fuel tank, cooling and exhaust system and gearbox, and replacing these with a custom-built imported electric motor and the batteries.
Freedom1 has a 600V DC battery pack made up from a number of large format, high-performance lithium ion cells – produced by a leading lithium ion cell manufacturer. The SUV prototype’s motor delivers 30 kW continuously, which can go up to a 45 kW maximum, with 200 Nm of torque being available at any driving speed. Freedom1 is able to far exceed the legal driving limit.
However, higher speeds reduce the vehicle’s range, which is conservatively estimated at 150 km as the Freedom Won team drove from Krugersdorp to Oliver Tambo International airport and back without a charge. After this 140 km trip, Freedom1 still had 20 percent of its “juice” left in the “ion tanks”.
The prototype is fitted with an on-board charger that can connect to a high-power charging supply, which can be easily installed at one’s home or office. This can charge the fully discharged battery pack within three to four hours, with the time climbing to five or six hours when an ordinary household socket is used.
But the beauty of Freedom Won is its capability of customising any vehicle to clients’ needs. “Each conversion is different, depending on the vehicle itself, but also how much performance and range are required (by like-minded converts) and the available budget,” explains English. He adds that smaller vehicles would need fewer batteries and that one could just add more if you want a greater range. “There is enough space, for example, in the Jeep for twice as many lithium cells, which could enhance its range to 300 or even 400 km.”
This will increase the cost of conversion as the ion cells are the biggest expense in the whole process, with Freedom1 surpassing the R200 000 mark during its conversion. However, this is a small price to pay if you consider the amount of savings one could achieve over the 10-year life cycle of the battery pack. English notes that the Cherokee’s mobility costs went down from R4 000 a month for the combustion engine to R400 a month with the electric motor.
Not to mention the saving achieved with the 50 000 km “service” intervals – which includes checking the batteries, brakes and tyres. The vehicle incorporates regenerative braking, which enhances its range, and results in tyres being the only real operating cost as the conventional brake system will only be used in emergencies.
“Our key company strategy is to demonstrate the viable, long-term benefits and value of driving and owning converted electric vehicles,” says Kriel, “with a longer-term vision of a large scale uptake of the EV concept.”
And with the benefits these vehicles will provide, the customisation possibilities offered by Freedom Won and the promise of greener electricity in South Africa, the future is looking bright for EVs and our country’s energy sustainability.