Solar Karoo

Solar energy Karoo
Enid and Kurt Krog of Kalkbult farm, where South Africa's first solar energy plant found a home.
Enid and Kurt Krog of Kalkbult farm, where South Africa’s first solar energy plant found a home.

By Julienne du Toit

Pictures by Chris Marais and Kurt Krog

South Africa’s new era of solar energy started with a stranger knocking on a Karoo farmhouse door in the early summer of 2010.

Enid and Kurt Krog of the farm Kalkbult, near the Northern Cape town of De Aar, hospitably invited him in. Over coffee and Enid’s homemade koeksisters on the farmhouse stoep, the mystery man revealed the purpose of his visit.

He was from a Norwegian energy outfit called Scatec Solar, and the company was interested in leasing 105 hectares of their 10 000 hectare farm. They wanted to set up solar panels on this piece of land, close to the road, railway line and its overhead power cables.

Kurt quickly ran the figures in his head.

On 105 hectares he could only graze (intermittently) a maximum of 60 sheep. What this mystery man was offering was way more than he could ever make out of mutton, wool or the sale of lambs.

The Kalkbult farmhouse.
The Kalkbult farmhouse, with solar panels on the right.

Kalkbult and Scatec Solar

This part of the world, north of De Aar, is not easy land to farm. The climate is unforgiving and dry. “People in the cities don’t know how it feels when it doesn’t rain and your windpump starts pumping air,” explained Kurt.

Still, it all sounded like a bit of a hoax. After Kurt and Enid waved the Scatec man goodbye, they privately agreed that he’d probably never be back. It sounded like a complete harebrained scheme. Like one of those pesky million-dollar lottery prize e-mails we all get, from time to time. They hadn’t even asked for his telephone number.

To the Krogs’ very great surprise, the man and his company did come back, and Kalkbult became the site of South Africa’s first solar farm. Construction on the 75 Megawatt solar farm began in 2012, and finished 10 months later, a full 90 days ahead of schedule.

Solar energy Karoo
Photovoltaic panels stretch to the horizon gathering solar energy over 105 hectares at Kalkbult, the first solar farm in the Karoo.

That’s the joy of a South Africa-based solar farm. Unlike various fossil fuel power stations we have all come to know and loathe, unlike your classic nuclear power station, you can actually bring a solar project in on time quickly – and under budget.

Solar Energy Assets

Part of what had bemused Kurt and Enid was why their farm had been chosen. But it turned out that Kalkbult had a confluence of solar energy assets.

  • It bordered on an underutilised 132kV power line, built to power electric locomotives;
  • There was an electrical substation on the property, built decades ago;
  • The farm fell within what is now known as the Northern Cape Solar Corridor, which is simultaneously rich in sunny days, big spaces and power lines;
  • It had a general north-facing aspect;
  • There was a designated road crossing over the railway line;
  • It had flat ground in the most convenient place – close to the substation, road and powerline.
    Karoo solar energy photographed from the platform of a  Karoo windpump.
    Karoo solar energy photographed from the platform of a Karoo windpump.

Over the years, Kurt had learnt to farm with very few labourers. The sheer size of the property plus his sense of adventure had pushed him towards farming using a motorised paraglider. On fine days, he’d take off and fly over the land, checking on the sheep, the water points and fences.

Now he became fascinated with construction of the solar plant. From the beginning right to the end, he took aerial images with a GoPro camera attached to his helmet.

Kurt’s Famous Knees

They proved to be invaluable. The wide angle shots (mostly including Kurt’s knobbly knees) made their way all over the world – and, of course, to Norway.

Kurt Krog went up regularly to record the progress of the solar farm.
Kurt Krog went up regularly to record the progress of the solar farm with his GoPro camera.

At the launch of the Kalkbult solar plant in November 2013, the Norwegian ambassador confided that Kurt must have some of the most famous knees in the world.

Asked to list the pros and cons of having a solar plant on their property, Enid and Kurt found it hard to list any negatives.

“Apart from the three months when all the interlink trucks were coming backwards and forwards with the components and there was all that dust, it’s been a pleasure.”

The Krogs are paid rental for the land based on a percentage of the income received for every sunny kilowatt generated from their property. If Kurt goes away, Enid feels safer knowing there are security people on the alert guarding the solar panels and, by extension, part of their property near the farmhouse, 24 hours day.

The Karoo bossies thrive in the shade. The grasses prefer the sun. The sheep love both.
The Karoo bossies thrive in the shade. The grasses prefer the sun. The sheep love both.

Sheep and Solar Energy

They can even graze their sheep every now and then on the bossies and grass that are thriving between the long lines of solar panels.

“It’s been interesting to watch the veld,” said Kurt.

“The grasses seem to do better in the full sun, but the bossies do well in the shadier parts. I let in about 50 sheep for a few weeks to let them graze the vegetation down a bit. They seemed to have loved it. There are water points within the fenced area for steenbok, rabbits, tortoises, porcupines and other small wild animals.

“In fact they loved it so much that five sheep decided to stay. I couldn’t get them out for weeks,” said Kurt.

The one downside though, is that despite having an electrical power plant on their property, the Krogs still suffer from loadshedding just like everyone else.

And for those occasions, Kurt swings the lever on the 1939 Lister engine in the garage, so at least they have lights and television for the duration. Sometimes old tech still rescues new tech.

Sometimes the old Lister engine is called on to generate energy for the farm when there is load shedding.
Sometimes the old Lister engine is called on to generate energy for the farm when there is load shedding.

5 thoughts on “Solar Karoo

  1. Suki says:

    Interesting to see how a chance encounter can make a life style change. Interesting read. Nice to see plants and animals are not too bothered by the panels and far enough out of town to irritate anyone. Good luck to them.

    • Jan Jaco Jonas says:

      Very life changing story of two dedicated couple. Not really costly to maintain. Don’t have a negative impact on the environment. Creating jobs for the community.

  2. maeder osler says:

    Yet another excellent article from a couple who help make one very proud to be in the Karoo in South Africa right now. Country roads win every time, all the time.

  3. Beccy says:

    Very inspiring story! Except letting sheep graze there, does the land under solar panels need more maintenance? I also see that the soil is sandy/dusty – this does not represent extra cost, when it comes to cleaning panels with water?

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