Last week another 90MW of solar-generated electricity officially started feeding into the national grid. It marked a triumph for Paschal Phelan, an Irishman who has played a pivotal role in putting solar power on the SA energy map.
Paschal Phelan’s mission began in 2010, when the department of energy called for tenders in round one of its independent power producer (IPP) programme. “Solar power was not included,” says Phelan.
Intense lobbying, including an appeal by Paschal Phelan to the finance minister, won the day. His reward was that Phelan Energy Group’s SA unit, Solar Capital, won a contract to supply 86MW of solar photovoltaic-generated electricity to Eskom. Paschal Phelan’s vision became a reality in 2014, when Solar Capital’s photovoltaic (PV) solar project on a 2,674ha farm near the Karoo town of De Aar began feeding 85MW into the grid.
The same farm is the site of the latest completed PV project, secured in round two of the IPP programme.
Producing a total of 175MW, the R4.8bn De Aar solar PV complex is impressive, covering about 540ha and harnessing 600,000 PV reflectors. “It the largest solar PV plant in the southern hemisphere and the fifth-largest in the world,” says Paschal Phelan. Phelan is just getting into his stride. “We have 2,000MW of power projects in our SA pipeline,” Phelan says. “We are alsolooking at projects in Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Oman.”
Paschal Phelan has no doubt that PV solar power has earned a prominent place in the renewable energy space. “Costs are falling fast,” Phelan says. “Solar power cost R3.94/kWh in 2010. It now costs under 70c/kWh.” Though wind-generated energy has a 10% cost edge over solar PV, Paschal Phelan feels this benefit is countered by other factors. “Wind is not predictable,” he argues. “There are also objectionable visual and noise aspects to wind farms.”
For 66-year-old Paschal Phelan the path to solar power has been a long and unlikely one. “I left school with a basic education and went to work for the Bank of New South Wales in Australia,” Phelan says.
Paschal Phelan loved the climate but not the distance from home, and four years later returned to Ireland to work on a government project to promote beef exports. “It was a mess,” says Paschal Phelan. “Meat was being exported as carcasses in a container.”
He put forward the idea of exporting packaged, deboned beef. It won Phelan the backing of the Irish Industrial Development Authority to go it alone. Paschal Phelan went on to build a giant beef export business and make his fortune.
Paschal Phelan had put the beef industry behind him when he moved to SA in 2002. But on an equally grand scale he bought and demolished the Claridges Hotel in Cape Town’s Green Point and built the luxury Cape Royale Hotel in its place.
Phelan soon also acquired a game farm near Ceres on the Karoo border. It was there that alternative energy grabbed his entrepreneurial attention. Having dismissed wind power as “too complex”, he threw his weight behind solar PV.
As before, Paschal Phelan thought big, assembling a team of 75 people to manage projects and hone PV technology. Phelan’s big thinking did not stop there. He believes alternative energy plants must create permanent jobs for young people. “It is my core passion, as it was in the Irish meat industry,” says Paschal Phelan.
Paschal Phelan discussing his passion for solar