Inside the GREEN Solar Centre designed to train and empower local talent in Alicedale

The GREEN Solar Academy was appointed as a project partner, to design, install, operate and maintain a containerised 100% off-grid PV system in Alicedale, South Africa. This is their story. 

This project started with a SESA programme (Smart Energy Solutions for Africa) that identifies sites to deploy Living Labs, real-life test beds for innovative energy solutions. The Living Labs allows SESA to experiment with ideas in different environments and gauge whether they have the potential to be rolled out in more locations.

These test beds are brought to life in co-operation with local energy providers and local businesses. In this case, uYilo, whose mission since 2013 has been to enable the electric mobility ecosystem (basically, get more people in rural areas using electric vehicles – EVs) was selected by SESA to test whether EVs can benefit rural communities. The EVs will be available for rent by the community, both for passenger and good transportation.

Being far off the beaten track, the electricity required to charge the EVs needed to come from solar energy. And if you’re going to install such a system, could it not have more than just one function, and also be used to benefit and teach those from the surrounding areas about PV solar? Yes, indeed! And so GREEN Solar Academy was appointed as a project partner, to design, install, operate and maintain a containerised 100% off-grid PV system – and we’ve called it the GREEN Solar Centre.

GREEN Solar Academy reached out to its Technology PartnersRenewSys, Phocos and Axiz Solar to source the components for the system, which consists of 48 x RenewSys Deserv 340Wp solar modules to generate a considerable 42kWh a day, 3 x 5kW Anygrid hybrid inverters from Phocos and a 30kWh battery bank composed of Revov 2nd-life lithium batteries from Axiz Solar.

The centre will generate power directly from the sun during the day while charging the batteries with any excess power, and the batteries will allow for night-time activities that require electricity. The energy will be used to charge the two uYilo electric vehicles, to power freely-available WiFi, and to allow people to charge their small devices like laptops and mobile phones.

The refurbishment of the container and the design and construction of the roof to support the solar array and provide welcome shade to visitors was undertaken by Lyndsay Cotton, a GREEN trainer who also operates his own successful roofing and solar companies (LCP Roofing and LCP Solar). He and his son David were part of the team who transported and erected the container, and installed the solar system, over the long Heritage Day weekend late in September.

Eastern Cape solar centre brings the just energy transition to Alicedale youth.

Community interaction on site was phenomenal

The construction materials and high-tech equipment generated plenty of excitement in the neighbourhood. People driving past parked their cars and got out, people on their way to and from the stores put down their bundles and came for a chat, ward councillors and community leaders made time to engage – indeed, we met an entire community excited about the presence of this centre in their town and the ways in which it is meant to benefit them.

Credit for generating interest in the centre must also go to the six dynamic young interns who were engaged to help out during the setup, who spread the word on social media platforms in the weeks leading up to the container arriving.

GREEN interns, all graduates of the Wilderness Foundation’s Siyazenzela programme, were on hand to demonstrate solar energy, explain what the centre is and encourage visitors to sign up for online courses in solar energy.

Interns drive involvement from the bottom up

The six young interns were present each day of the build-up to help communicate how solar energy works (with a little help from our trustylexSolar experimental kits, of course), explain what the centre is, encourage other youngsters to sign up for free online courses in solar energy, and do a bit of market research on the ways in which solar can better the lives of the community. Coming from Alicedale themselves, and able to speak a variety of languages between them, including Xhosa, Sotho, Zulu, English and Afrikaans, meant they were able to communicate all these concepts above in visitor’s home languages, really helping to give clarity on what the centre is all about.

Our mission for the GREEN Solar Centre is to empower local talent by training trainers from within the Alicedale community. We’ll also be exploring various business models run by the community for the benefit the community.

The interns have all gone through the Wilderness Foundation’s Siyazenzela programme, a four-week short-term basic employability and wellness course, which aims to see young people from previously disadvantaged communities gain job preparedness skills and even places them in employment once they have completed the programme. GREEN will use their internship period to decide which 3 will be permanently employed by us in the solar centre full time.

Future plans for the GREEN Solar Centre

GREEN is a provider of solar training, so education on PV is high on our list of goals for this centre. But training for rural communities presents unique challenges; often, there’s a lack of capacity, and hiring trainers from cities can be expensive. Our mission for the GREEN Solar Centre is to empower local talent by training trainers from within the Alicedale community. The trainers will use our eLearning courses to offer a blended learning experience to their students and ensure the standard of education remains at a consistently high level, and they will also have access to the centre’s off-grid PV system for live demonstrations.

But we will also be exploring various business models run by the community for the benefit the community, such as turning it into an internet café, or perhaps a job centre that offers CV printing services and helps people to apply for jobs. The possibilities are exciting, and we’re committed to using the site to make a meaningful impact on Alicedale and its community.

In the meantime, there’ll be a month of testing and finetuning of the system, after which the GREEN Solar Centre will host its first visitor event – live screening of the rugby on 28 October. The official inauguration is set for 31 October, with more community-centred events planned for the week after that.

Author: GREENSolar Academy

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