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AWS solar project begins contributing power to SA’s electricity grid

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Amazon Web Services (AWS), an Amazon.com company, today announced that the first operational solar project it has enabled in South Africa has begun contributing renewable energy to the electricity grid.

Located in the Northern Cape, the 10-megawatt (MW) solar project will supply renewable energy to AWS data centres and contribute to South Africa’s 2030 renewable energy goals.

AWS, which first established a presence in SA in Cape Town in 2004, opened its data centre facilities in SA in April last year.

In December, the US-based tech giant announced its renewable project in SA in partnership with local companies.

At the time, it said the SOLA Group would be responsible for developing the project and will build, own and operate the solar facility.

The project begun construction in early 2021.

The AWS announcement comes as SA is slowly embracing renewable energy amid the power crisis at state-owned power utility Eskom.

Amid the crisis at Eskom, in June, president Cyril Ramaphosa announced the decision to amend the Electricity Regulation Act to lift the threshold for companies to produce their own electricity without a licence to 100MW.

Companies have embraced the move, as they want to wean themselves from the troubled state-owned company.

Tapping into valuable energy source

In a statement today, AWS says the solar project is expected to generate up to 28 000MW hours of renewable energy per year, which is equivalent to the annual electricity consumption of over 8 000 average South African homes.

It notes that the project is a single-axis tracking plant consisting of over 24 000 bifacial solar modules covering an area of 20 hectares in the Northern Cape, where solar is a valuable energy resource.

The solar photovoltaic panels track the sun throughout the day, absorbing irradiance from the sky and reflected light from the ground.

According to AWS, the project design will result in more than an estimated 25 000 tonnes of carbon emissions avoided annually, the equivalent of removing 5 400 cars from the road for a year.

“Amazon is committed to working with governments and utility suppliers around the world to help bring more new renewable energy projects online, and we’re honoured to be able to work with the Department of Minerals and Energy, the National Energy Regulator of South Africa and Eskom to help deliver a new model for renewable energy generation in South Africa,” says Nat Sahlstrom, director of AWS Energy.

“This project brings Amazon closer to achieving net-zero carbon by 2040 and powering our operations with 100% renewable energy, a commitment we’re on path to achieve five years early by 2025.”

The solar project is majority-owned by black women and operated by a fully South African-owned company, according to the project developer SOLA.

“Historically, black women have been critically under-represented in infrastructure, agriculture and utility ownership,” says Meta Mhlarhi, co-founder and executive director at Mahlako Financial Services, an investor in the project.

“Energy projects that enable black investment are our surest way to a just transition to renewable energy.”

AWS notes that during construction, the project created 167 jobs, 63% from the local surrounding area.

It will sustain permanent jobs for its lifetime, in electrical maintenance, operation and security. Unused materials from construction, including pallets and electrical cable drums, were donated to local furniture businesses and special skills schools to support small, medium and micro enterprises, the company adds.

Clean transformation

“It’s important that while we’re building renewable energy capacity in South Africa that we’re also developing South African companies and skills,” says Dom Wills, CEO of SOLA Group, the South African company responsible for developing and operating the energy plant.

“SOLA is committed to transforming South Africa through clean energy, and this project marks a step change in scale.”

AWS says it is committed to building a sustainable business for customers and the planet. In 2019, Amazon co-founded The Climate Pledge – a commitment to be net zero carbon across all global operations by 2040, 10 years ahead of the Paris Agreement.

It points out that Amazon is on a path to powering operations with 100% renewable energy by 2025 – five years ahead of its original target of 2030.

In 2020, says the firm, Amazon became the world’s largest corporate purchaser of renewable energy, reaching 65% renewable energy across its business, with a portfolio including 234 global renewable energy projects totalling over 10GW of renewable capacity globally.

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