Sunfarming is taking the lead when it comes to developing and investing in agrophotovoltaic projects in Germany. And in South Africa, Sunfarming’s Food and Energy and Food Education Energy Development (FEED) program has developed two unique concepts through which you can share your agrophotovoltaic expertise. pv magazine sat down with Sunfarming’s director of international projects, Edith Brasche, to discuss the company’s South African projects.
From the magazine pv 07/2022
This food and energy (F&E) concept has been on display at North West University in South Africa since 2014. Can you tell us about the project?
We are working to combine our innovative technological expertise in renewable energy with sustainable local food production, crop protection, water management, education and job creation. Since 2014, we have been operating a “SUNfarming Food and Energy (F&E) Plant” at the Potchefstroom campus of North Western University (NWU) in South Africa. The plant is used for joint scientific research on food plants and herbs under the solar modules. After the F&E plant was expanded into the F&E training center in 2016, the facility was also used to develop joint certified training programs for students, local people, and to produce healthy food (vegetables, fruits, medicinal herbs) for communities. low-income in the while generating carbon-neutral solar power for the university.
In 2019 we started a food aid program, producing 10 tons (200,000 meals) of pre-cooked maize porridge mixed with medicinal herbs grown in our F&E plant. Within a week, we, together with our partners, sent the “vitality porridge” to Mozambique after Cyclone Idai left a major humanitarian crisis in its wake. We also founded a subsidiary company, SUNCybernetics, which offers PV GreenCard training supported by the South African Photovoltaic Industry Association (SAPVIA) for those interested in owning, installing or maintaining PV systems in a safe, compatible and functional manner.
That same year we transferred and implemented the megawatt-scale F&E concept to a refugee camp in Osmanyie, Turkey. Thus supplying refugees with vegetables, fruits, medicinal herbs and chickens raised under photovoltaic modules. More F&E plants are planned elsewhere in South Africa, Madagascar, Sri Lanka and Latin America.
The independent consulting agency Steward Requeen assessed the macroeconomic effects of the Sunfarming projects on local communities as excellent. Each year up to 50 people can be trained and up to 24 new jobs could potentially be created.
These “Healthy School Meals” are great proof of the value of this system. The program received renewed funding in 2021. Where is it headed?
Central to our programs is our locally produced vitality porridge, made from corn and blended with ginger, turmeric and African wormwood grown by former trainees at our F&E plant. Rich in vitamins, minerals and proteins, the vitality porridge also stimulates the immune system and supports the healthy development of children. The meals are distributed to schools in rural areas, areas of high unemployment and low socioeconomic status. More than 52,000 people benefited from the project, including 360 local people who received training in sustainable gardening and received garden starter kits for their home gardens. Another 72 people received business training to start their own small farming businesses. In another joint project, which started in June 2021, Sunfarming is distributing 28.5 million servings of vitality porridge to 40 schools with around 12,000 children and their 60,000 family members by 2023. All schools will also have a garden for produce food sustainably for their kitchens. In 2021 alone, 507 million servings of vitality porridge were distributed.
Can you talk about the variety of agricultural products? What grows best with PV?
Our agriPV concepts vary in height according to the objectives to be achieved: greater biodiversity, food production and animal husbandry. Environmental conditions and the local market play an important role in what will be produced.
The photovoltaic eco-systems are one meter at the lowest point and 2.4 meters at the highest, and are equipped with drip irrigation systems. The glass-glass bifacial modules allow light to pass through while the width between rows is around three meters. Depending on the region, the rows may be protected from predators or extreme weather. Below, insects, smaller animals, birds, sheep and poultry can live in a protected area and flower meadows can grow. agriPV systems can range from 1.5 meters to 2.1 meters at the lowest point to 2.9 meters to 3.6 meters at the highest point. They have been developed for agricultural and horticultural production even with small tractors. The systems are ideal for vegetables such as tomato, cucumber, peppers, cabbage, salad, spinach, etc., and berries such as raspberries, strawberries, and even wine grapes, as well as herbs.
The program also trains women in sustainable agriculture, photovoltaics and entrepreneurship. How are local women using AgriPV?
Once we install the plant, the local people are trained in agricultural and horticultural production under the photovoltaic panels and make use of the products. At planned large-scale F&E plants to be set up in various parts of South Africa, certified training will be available for those motivated to start their own business as subcontractors or franchise entrepreneurs while making use of and benefiting from the infrastructure.
Wherever women are empowered, we find relief from poverty. Can education and training create sustainable economic opportunities for local communities and, in particular, opportunities for women?
Absolutely! Women are highly motivated to contribute to the family income and food with their own work and to be self-sufficient. Therefore, we see that the women work hard in the trainings and more than 90% start to cultivate their own family gardens. So far about 20% of all participants manage to find a job in agriculture or start their own small business in agriculture or horticulture. However, long-term personal support is mainly needed to help the students to solve their daily problems in their activities, as well as to guide them how the products can be sold in the local market or how they could develop their business. further away.
South Africa’s energy landscape is at a critical transition point, with renewable energy expansion plans proposed to meet climate targets. Are you optimistic about the South African market and what role large-scale agrophotovoltaics can play?
South Africa has excellent conditions for the transition to renewable energy, as there are vast areas of arable land, as well as areas that were used for mining or other industrial purposes that can use agrophotovoltaic solutions. However, foreign investors such as Sunfarming require calculable conditions in terms of grid access and transport fees. Deadlines in licensing or registration processes are a cause for concern. We hope that processes will become more transparent and standardized and bureaucracy will be minimized so that investments and project completion can be accelerated.
We are cautiously optimistic about the market as Sunfarming needs to compete on rates with solar-only projects, which is not sensible. In the context of a just energy transition, policymakers should give preference and support to agrophotovoltaic solutions that can address multiple socio-economic challenges while decreasing the country’s carbon energy dependence. Large-scale AgriPV could help protect existing farmland from climate change conditions and even save farming businesses, while at the same time contributing to increased food production due to higher yields and prevention of climate-related damage. climate change. With the opening of the South African energy market to private energy providers, Sunfarming is already developing more F&E plants now in the Eastern and Western Cape, selling the energy to private buyers, while FEED can use some of the infrastructure as training centres.
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