Swiss company HopSol built the third largest PV farm in Namibia and connected it to the utility grid in just two years—with the help of SMA inverter technology and my colleague Manuel März. He told me what mining bees have to do with PV farms and the possibilities that this, at first glance rather inhospitable, country offers.karibib-sonnenuntergang

Namibia is, in many ways, something special. A wealth of natural resources and sunshine, an unstable public electricity supply and there is plenty of space—this combination makes Namibia an attractive location for large PV systems. The country is situated in southern Africa and is bordered by the Atlantic Ocean. However, the same stretch of coastline is taken up by the world’s oldest Namib desert. And with temperatures of over 50°C during the day and below 0°C at night, it is among the hottest and least inviting places imaginable.

“I was fascinated by the variety of the country,” said my colleague Manuel März, who was there in the spring. “There are as many giraffes as we have fallow deer. And some unique species, which can only be found there, live in the desert.”

Background Namibiaflagge-namibia_svg

The black rhinoceros defies the sand with extra-large feet and the desert elephant quenches its thirst by tracking down underground watercourses. Also unique to the area are: the gemsbok, which meet its need for fluids from solid foods alone; the Namib sand gecko, which does not burn its fan-shaped feet even in 70°C heat; and the welwitschia plant, which was named after its discoverer Friedrich Welwitsch, only produces a single pair of foliage leaves, and can live for up to 2,000 years. The welwitschia and gemsbok adorn the Namibian coat of arms.

Of course, Manuel wasn’t on safari in Namibia. He had a different mission: He was helping install a megawatt-class PV farm in Karibib, in the western part of the country. The small area is known for its pure black marble, which it exports around the world.

PV Power Plants Secure Electricity Supply

For Swiss solar company, HopSol AG, it was clear early on that a second look at this unique country was definitely worthwhile. For seven years, it has operated a subsidiary company with HopSol Africa in the capital city of Windhoek. The Swiss company has already built and commissioned three megawatt parks each with 5 MW of power within two years. HopSol’s activities as an independent power producer (IPP) include selling electric current to the national power company NamPower and regional electric utility companies.


After Otjiwarongo in November 2015 and Otjozondjupa in June 2016, came the park in Karibib in March 2017. The 5-MW PV farm with 19,200 monocrystalline modules and 94 Sunny Tripower 60 inverters is connected to the utility grid and is expected to produce around 13,600 kWh of solar power for 3,600 households annually.

Solar energy with a twist

Solar energy with a twist

Robert Hopperdietzel, managing director of HopSol, shared his experience: “In Namibia, we are dealing with unique ambient conditions. The solar irradiation is very high so it is extremely hot and dry but can also sometimes rain heavily. We built the PV farm in heat of 50°C in the shade. All of a sudden, there was a heavy downpour, ruining all of the digging that had been done. That’s why for the inverters, we relied on SMA devices with high levels of efficiency. We also ran the modules on two-wheel trackers in the direction of the sun, to increase the energy yield by another 25 percent.”

Trackers follow the position of the sun increasing the energy yield by 25%

Trackers follow the position of the sun increasing the energy yield by 25%

The Sunny Tripower 60 combines the advantages of a decentralized PV system layout with those of a central inverter concept. This ensures high performance while also guaranteeing maximum planning flexibility. The SMA Inverter Manager is both the communications component and the interface for controlling the entire system, and handles all the important inverter and system management functions. “Against all odds, we completed the entire PV farm in just 12 weeks and even commissioned the system a month ahead of schedule,” said Hopperdietzel.

All in One With the Medium Voltage Power Station

A mining bee

A mining bee

The only drawback is that the inverters require a separate protective cover. Because the modules follow the sun using the tracker system, the inverters cannot even be installed under the module array as normally happens. There is another reason too, caused by the flora and fauna: “Mining bees and sand wasps here would colonize the inverters in a flash and clog the ventilation with their nests,” explained März. “As the operator, we want to prevent this, of course. Therefore, the current transformers, including the medium-voltage block, are well protected in a corrugated-iron hut with finely woven screen doors in front of the windows.”

For future projects, Hopperdietzel can also imagine reverting to SMA’s central inverters. Here, the SMA medium-voltage power station offers everything in one compact enclosure—there isn’t anything better. The storage version, Sunny Central Storage, is also becoming more and more of a topic at HopSol. “Then the energy supply would also be even more reliable in cloud coverage, and the general public could even continue using the solar power at night,” said März. A reliable electricity supply is an important step in the country’s economic development.


Ninety-four Sunny Tripower inverters are installed in the area protected against mining bees.

Cost-Effective Solar Power Opens Up New Opportunities

Namibia’s economy is shaped by agriculture, tourism and fishing, as well as the mining of natural resources such as diamonds, uranium, gold, silver and copper. Being largely desert, as of mid-2016, the country had a population of approximately 2.5 million which equates to only 2.7 residents per square kilometer, making it one of the most sparsely populated countries in the world. The world’s average population density is 45 people per km2. To make a comparison, in the capital city of Windhoek there are 63 residents per km2, in Germany there are 230 residents per km2, the U.S. has 31 residents per km2, and South Africa, Namibia’s neighbor, has 36 residents per km2. Accordingly, grid expansion for supplying electricity to the population is difficult.

The national power company, NamPower, operates its own power plants but their capacities are not enough to meet demand. Therefore, NamPower also imports electric current from the South African Power Pool, to which the neighboring countries of South Africa, Zambia, Mozambique and Zimbabwe belong. These countries are also struggling with increasing domestic electricity demand, which means that prices are rising quickly and shortages are more and more frequent. For this reason, Namibia’s objective is to be able to meet demand on its own as much as possible by building up its capacities. And because the country is one of the sunniest regions in the world, with overall solar irradiation of more than 2,400 kWh/m2, solar energy already has lower generation costs here than conventional energy carriers.


The utility grid in Namibia cannot always supply sufficient electricity on demand.

PV power plants are an appealing solution to rising electricity costs and to increase Namibia`s electrification rate, which is still less than 50 percent. Systems with power of 500 kW to 5 MW are given particular support by the Renewable Feed-In Tariff (REFIT). As an IPP, the PV farm operator signed an electricity consumption agreement with NamPower and receives a feed-in tariff of up to 1.37 N$/kWh (equivalent to €0.10, as of April 24, 2017) for solar power. This is economically attractive for operators and helps Namibia close gaps in the electricity supply.

Mining Operations Save Fuel With SMA Fuel Save Solution

Incidentally, mining operations in remote regions can also benefit from solar energy. With a photovoltaic diesel hybrid system, they integrate cost-effective solar power into their energy supply and, in doing so, reduce electricity costs and CO2 emissions. The SMA Fuel Save Controller controls the PV system and diesel generators, and enables efficient system operation with maximum grid stability. Find out more here.

Indian total installed energy generation capacity stood at over 320 GW (326848.53 MW) on 31st March 2017. Although the country has added 93.5 GW of power generation capacity within its ‘12th Five Year Plan’, more than 4000 villages in the country still remain without access to electricity, and power failures still plague the ever demanding lifestyle of city dwellers. Statistics show a distinct energy generation deficit in Northern (-1.8%), Eastern (-10.3%), and North- Eastern regions (-8.3%) in India. Although, energy transmission solutions are being implemented with the help of initiatives like UDAY, facilitating the availability of electricity to the farthest corners of India is still work in progress. Therefore, to realize the ‘100 per cent village electrification by May 2018’ announcement by Finance Minister Shri Arun Jaitley, the country needs to opt for new initiatives to spread light to rural areas.

Solar Can Save The Day

Solar rooftop installation offers a simple, speedy, and feasible solution to energy problems in rural areas in India. And factoring in that more than 60 per cent of the population lives in the villages, it is a necessity for India to spread the green energy revolution to the rural parts to see comprehensive growth. Rooftop solar solutions (mini-grid, off grid installations) can help in illuminating the areas still un-electrified.

Growth in Rooftop Solar Sector

Policies and schemes offering custom duty concession, tax holidays, excise duty exemption, and accelerated depreciation, for commercial and industrial sectors, have led rooftop solar installations to rise from 72 MW per year to 227 MW per year. Currently standing with more than 1 GW capacity, rooftop solar industry in India is promising at least 75 per cent growth in 2017 over 2016. Tamil Nadu (132 MW) is currently leading the country in rooftop installations, while Gujarat (69 MW) and Maharashtra (89 MW), are making huge strides to utilize rooftop solar solutions.

Besides facilitating the growth in commercial and industrial sector, India has also focused on residential installations to bring the common man into the fold of the green energy revolution. Foreign investment commitments of more than USD1.5 billion in this sector, 30 percent capital subsidy to residential and not-for-profit institutional investors, and implementation of net-metering facilities (30 of the total 36 states and UTs have net-metering policies) have led to incredible growth in the residential rooftop solar industry.

Solar Rooftop is Feasible

Besides the Government support and global acceptance, solar rooftop has another trump card up its sleeve to woo common man into rooting for green energy revolution. Recent study has proven that solar rooftop utilization is more feasible than the expenses burdened by the diesel generators. And this feasibility is expected to help people into making the right decisions for an energy rich future. Diesel generators are primarily used in the rural areas where grid connectivity is rare or non-existent. However, cities suffering from power cuts also use these generators to keep the lights on. Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) based study shows that diesel generators cost INR 15-20 per unit of electricity, while rooftop solar can generate electricity at INR 5-6 per unit. This study carefully analysed the residential installations in and around Delhi, Rajasthan, Haryana, and UP; and it clearly portrays solar rooftop solutions in a brighter light supported by facts.

And Considering The NGO Proposals:

  • To make rooftop solar installations mandatory for residential societies,
  • Ban generator sets, as they are expensive and not pollution proof,
  • Urging DISCOMS to support rooftop installation,
  • Support towards usage of mini-grid, and off-grid solar installations for houses and communities;

It is easy to understand that off grid and mini-grid rooftop solar can be the best options for extensive electrification of India at a faster rate.

Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) has explained that installing rooftop solar plants can promise a better generation at a much feasible rate even in the rainy season. CSE is also working on putting up a website with solar calculator for people to easily calculate their cost to energy if they go solar. Such developments will surely help people make the right decision, saving money, and the environment, while illuminating their homes.

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India’s aggressive push towards green energy shift is finally picking up speed, catching up with country’s current primary energy generation source, thermal energy. In FY 16-17, while the thermal energy generation capacity stood at 11.5 GW, renewable energy reached 11.3 GW capacity, promising to surpass thermal power in a short time span. It is great news for the country, since the government and private players have been shouldering challenging ventures to bring about drastic changes in the nation’s energy mix. From implementing new policies, to bringing in foreign investment for the renewable sector, the initiatives have finally shown results that the country hoped for. However, a curious mind will eventually find lack of symmetry in this growth, especially for solar.

India is Championing Solar

It is no secret that India has chosen solar to lead the green energy shift, due to its numerous benefits (such as- confirmed availability, increasing global acceptance, feasibility of installation, low maintenance, etc…) that far outweigh other sources of renewable energy. But surprisingly, solar has very little share in the recent growth of renewable energy that is contending thermal capacities.

A closer inspection reveals that the total capacity of the renewable energy sector has reached 57 GW. However, solar stands with only 12 GW of the cumulative capacity. Our Hon’ble Prime Minister, Shri Narendra Modi’s solar target announcement, which gave solar 100 GW target out of total 175 target capacity, makes solar the first priority of growth initiatives. However, the current scenario has faltered in realizing that growth.

It is also undeniable that Government backing and plethora of policies offering easy financing, long tenure loans, net metering, mandating solar installation in Government buildings, viability gap funding, and initiatives like International Solar Alliance have helped Indian solar sector to claim the position of the 3rd largest solar market in the world (overtaking Japan). The Indian Government has taken progressive initiatives and prompt decisions which have electrified more than 12000 villages and led India to double its capacity in 1 year (from 5 GW in 2015, to 10 GW in 2016).

However, in the similar vein, we also need to highlight that achieving the set targets of 100 GW, approximately 18 GW of capacity installation each year is needed for the next 4-5 years, which is more than 3 times the capacity it has added in 2016. And although doubling solar capacity in 1 year is a commendable feat, considering the lack of advanced industrial structure within the country, it has to be noted that India fell short to reach the set solar target in FY 16-17 by 6,474 MW. Therefore, we can state that the intensity of the efforts are coming up short in reaching the humungous solar target that India has established.

The Way Forward

Arguments about statistics aside, India has done a terrific job in moulding its energy infrastructure to welcome green energy revolution. All it needs, is a push in the right areas to bring about a symmetrical growth for renewable energy, where solar shines bright (since that is what solar reliance is all about).

  • Introducing more projects (especially DCR category)
  • Focusing on domestic manufacturing (just like China and USA has done)
  • Imposing anti-dumping (to create demand for domestic players and to maintain high quality modules for countrywide installation)
  • Speeding up the project awarding process after completion of auctions
  • Stabilizing tariffs (to attract more investors, and to protect project sustainability)
  • Establishing more R&D and quality control facilities (currently we have only 5)

Focusing on these primary challenges can help India to increase its solar installations and assure energy sustainability at the same time. We are still at the beginning of building our solar empire. Taking positive and bold decisions now, will have great impacts on our energy future. Therefore, we should all come together and join the solar revolution to make the next energy success a greener and brighter one.

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May 4, 2017

NREL's Industry Growth Forum convenes venture capitalists, government representatives, and cleantech experts.

A man points to a device while talking to a man seated next to him.

Paul Schwartz explains his thermal heat pump to a potential investor during NREL's Industry Growth Forum in Denver, Colorado. Photo by Dennis Schroeder/NREL

Paul Schwartz, who recently traveled from New York to be part of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory's 2017 Industry Growth Forum (IGF), was beaming after his 10-minute presentation to assembled venture capitalists, government representatives, and cleantech experts. "The one investor I really wanted was on that panel, so it was like having a private pitch session," said Schwartz, chief executive officer and co-founder of ThermoLift. Think TV's "Shark Tank," minus the sharks circling the talent pool.

His start-up makes a natural gas-driven heat pump and air conditioner designed to reduce heating, ventilating, and air conditioning costs by 30%-50% and was selected in 2015 as part of the second cohort of the Wells Fargo Innovation Incubator (IN2). Through IN2, funded by the Wells Fargo Foundation and managed by the U.S. Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), ThermoLift is getting $250,000 for technical help, including systems modeling for the machine. Schwartz visited the laboratory in October and "the feedback we've gotten from NREL has already been incorporated into our gen three model." Schwartz is optimistic that his enterprise could have 20 prototypes circulating in a year. "We're really happy today," he said.

He wasn't alone. The recent forum was buzzing with one-on-one pitch sessions, networking—and perhaps most of all—the news of a $20 million IN2 expansion, making a total of $30 million. The additional funding will allow IN2 to leverage its building commercialization model to sectors such as transportation, sustainable agriculture, and energy storage. These funds will also help develop a Channel Partner Award program for its more than 40 channel partners from universities, accelerators, and other incubators. The expansion will help a pipeline of startup referrals be considered for participation in the IN2 program, as well as continue to provide a framework for future development strategies.

"In the three years since the launch of IN2, we've learned the success of the program is very much dependent on the support and mentoring our participants receive at their earliest stages—at universities and through other incubator and accelerator programs—prior to joining IN2," said Ashley Grosh, vice president and IN2 co-lead for Wells Fargo. To date, the program has funded 20 early-stage start-ups (including a handful of 2017 IGF presenters such as ThermoLift) and contributed to successful exits of two Round 1 awardees by acquisition. Things are going swimmingly for IN2.

A photo of two women having a discussion at a table.

Entrepreneurs, investors and industry experts get together in the One on One Networking Session at the 2017 Industry Growth Forum in Denver, Colorado. Photo by Dennis Schroeder/NREL

IGF Bringing Startups and Funders Together

Both the IN2 announcement and the turnout of some 400 attendees confirmed the reach of the IGF, which has grown for more than 20 years. "This is a great showcase for the breadth and depth of NREL," NREL Director Martin Keller said. While players have changed, the formula remains essentially the same. "NREL is this convener—we have trusted relationships," said Bill Farris, NREL associate laboratory director for Innovation, Partnering, and Outreach. "We don't have money to invest, so we're not the investor. The technologies these companies represent are not our technologies," he said. "Annually 150-200 companies apply for the forum, and our network of over 100 investors then runs a thorough selection process to filter out the best 30. We are a neutral entity that understands technologies and is an important player in the cleantech ecosystem. Bringing investors together with these small companies is what it's all about."

The IN2 presence at the forum is not just random. "Historically, the conference has been a great event in terms of attracting active clean energy investors and the best technology companies in this space," said Richard Adams, director of NREL's Innovation and Entrepreneurship Center. "What we've tried to do in the last eight years is to think about our space as an entire clean energy continuum—everything from an idea in a researcher or entrepreneur's head to a product on the shelf or a product in the ground. We're looking to see where the gaps exist." In a way, both the forum and IN2 address some gaps while converging on the same goal: backing great ideas that ultimately create opportunities and jobs. Indeed, since 2003, Adams said start-ups that have presented at IGF have raised more than $5.1 billion.

And while trends reflecting the types of IGF startups have changed over the years—solar pricing models were new 10 years ago, while big data and offshore wind are emerging today—the pool keeps replenishing itself. The evolution continues with displays for products such as a "Fitbit" for building pipes or a one-stop shop for consumers looking to go solar. Hopefuls, too, were on display. NREL Postdoctoral Researcher Lance Wheeler showcased a poster for an Energy I-Corps project to make smart glass smarter, for which he's entrepreneurial lead and Rob Tenent is principal investigator. "We're talking to investors, seeing if there's interest," Wheeler said. And why not? Cleantech is hot.

Finding the Next Great Idea

Motives vary for why people attend—but the track record of the IGF is a big factor. As one global investor (who asked to remain anonymous) said, "This is one of only two conferences I come to each year. And every year, the quality of the presenters goes up." Olushola Ashiru, a portfolio manager for the New York-based New Energy Fund II, served as one of the pitch judges, providing feedback to presenters. She appeared to have a bounce in her step after hearing the final presentation. "This was an especially important day," she said. "We found a lot of prospects."

Indeed, just as prospectors first came to the region to look for gold, investors at IGF were in the hunt for viable concepts. Christopher Ohlsen of Sharp Sky Partners flew in from Minneapolis to scout on behalf of some Fortune 100 clients. "Clean energy has reached a tipping point in the public mind, thanks to Elon Musk," he said. Consequently companies are on the alert—but often, these large players need help. Ohlsen was acting as their eyes and ears. The event, he said, was worth his time—and he had seen presentations that deserved further scrutiny.

Of course, not everything is about investment. Jeff Bell, a renewables technology specialist for the province of Alberta, Canada, attended for the first time this year, in part to seek connections with NREL. After connecting with several NREL representatives, he was pleased, though hungry for more. "I need to come back and have some one-on-ones," Bell said. "It could be the beginning of some sort of partnership." At times, the most valuable commodity being traded is information. Eric Payne of NREL's Technology Transfer Office, stood—or rather sat—ready to talk with attendees at the one-on-one sessions. Some came to him with questions about global patents. "We try to provide that as a pro bono service," he said, noting that and and his colleagues monitor the field. Many are looking for validation. One early questioner sought this, even though he had a device, complete with patents, which seemed to promise perpetual motion. Payne was patient but honest—after all, the laws of physics can't be suspended. Still, the parade of visitors to his table, he declared, was "a testament to how people look to NREL."

A photo of a man presenting and smiling at a podium.

Best Venture Awardee, Entic, Inc. presents at the 2017 NREL Industry Growth Forum in Denver, Colorado. Photo by Dennis Schroeder/NREL

Young Innovators in the Spotlight

For Paul Lichty of Louisville, Colo.-based Forge Nano, the forum was an old hat. He had presented three years ago at the IGF, and his return is as a "Later Stage" IGF presenter. "The best analogy I have is—we make nano-M&Ms," the Parker native said. Through the deposition process—like the one used in the semi-conductor industry—clients, such as lithium-ion battery makers, can tailor the surfaces of materials and coat another material. After initially bootstrapping and not taking salaries, Lichty's firm now employs 27, and hopes to double that. Andrew Maxey was sharing his vision for Vartega, which recently opened a 3,000 square foot factory in Golden, Colo., where it operates a low-cost recycling process for carbon fiber from local aerospace and sporting equipment manufacturers.

Maxey, who made his first IGF presentation, clearly enjoyed the experience, enthusiastically thanking presentation panelists for their questions about his start-up. His firm's work hit the mark in the opinion of the organizers, and at the awards luncheon, he received one of the IGF Outstanding Venture awards. "It was a great event," Maxey said amidst handshakes from well-wishers. Entic, Inc. received the top prize for the Best Venture award. This Pembroke Pines, Fla.-based company's cloud-based subscription software platform for commercial buildings provides operational visibility into energy-consuming systems and analytics-driven optimization of HVAC central plants. And another Outstanding Venture award went to EnergySage, a Boston, Mass.-company which provides an online comparison-shopping marketplace for rooftop and community solar.

Afterwards, Lichty reflected on the event and its scope. "The IGF is a great forum for us to present our company to policy makers and potential investors. We got a number of very exciting investment leads and saw some very interesting presentations from other cleantech companies commercializing promising technologies." For Lichty and others, IGF was more an invigorating dip than a survival mission among sharks. Many were already making plans to attend next year's event—when old faces and new hands will gather to plunge again into Colorado's cleantech waters.

Learn more about the Industry Growth Forum.


— Ernie Tucker




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