South Africa unveils plans for ‘world’s biggest’ solar power plant

South Africa is to unveil plans this week for what it claims will be the world’s biggest solar power plant – a radical step in a coal-dependent country where one in six people still lacks electricity.

The project, expected to cost up to 200bn rand (£18.42bn), would aim by the end of its first decade to achieve an annual output of five gigawatts (GW) of electricity – currently one-tenth of South Africa’s energy needs.

Giant mirrors and solar panels would be spread across the Northern Cape province, which the government says is among the sunniest 3% of regions in the world with minimal cloud or rain.

The government hopes the solar park will help reduce carbon emissions from Africa’s biggest economy, which is still more than 90% dependent on coal-fired power stations. In April, the World Bank came in for sharp criticism from environmentalists for approving a $3.75bn (£2.37bn) loan to build one of the world’s largest coal-fired power plants in the country.

Energy is already a high priority in South Africa where, at the end of racial apartheid, less than 40% of households had electricity. Over 16 years the governing African National Congress has undertaken a huge national expansion, with a recent survey showing that 83% are now connected, but power outages are still not uncommon in both townships and middle-class suburbs.

An estimated 200 foreign and domestic investors will meet this week in Upington, Northern Cape, with a view to funding the hugely ambitious solar project. A master plan will be set out by the US engineering and construction group Fluor. This follows a viability study by the Clinton Climate Initiative, which described South Africa’s “solar resource” as among the best in the world.

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