Leading carpet manufacturer Belgotex Floorcoverings is installing what is claimed to be the largest roof-mounted solar power system in South Africa.

An installation of 12 000m2 (1,2 hectares) of photovoltaic (PV) solar panels commenced at their factory in Pietermaritzburg, KwaZulu-Natal in July and is expected to have an electricity-generating capacity of around one megawatt-hour.

The latest initiative in the company’s ongoing ‘Green Journey’, the project is intended to reduce their reliance on the national electricity supplier and move them towards sustainable energy sources.

Solar energy is considered the cleanest, most viable alternative to fossil-based fuels and plays an important role in decarbonising the global economy. Over four thousand solar modules – equivalent to one and a half rugby fields – will be installed on Belgotex’s 100 000m2 factory roof tops at a cost of R17 million, providing about 5% of the giant’s annual energy requirement.

The daily energy generated is estimated to be sufficient to power 700 average households, with an expected five- to seven-year payback.

With increasing petroleum/coal prices, peak load penalties for large power users and a 10% annual increase for utilities projected by Eskom, self-generated solar power has obvious advantages for both operational costs and environmental management.

Photovoltaic (PV) panels are active solar systems that utilise supply-side technology to generate alternative energy, whereas passive solar systems (e.g. using natural sunlight for heating) merely reduce the demand.

Multicrystalline solar panels harness the sun’s energy during daylight hours, converting sunlight into electricity through the photo-electric effect, a process similar to photosynthesis in plants. The low maintenance requirements, autonomous operation and a long life expectancy make solar power systems ideal for on-site renewable power generation.

Belgotex boasts enough north-facing roof surface to cover 50 000m2, with plans to roll out a second and possibly a third phase over the next five years to meet their own requirements. This would eventually enable the company (once legislation changes), to feed power back into the national grid by selling their excess electricity back to Eskom during weekends, shutdown periods or power outages.

The move is also expected to reduce the company’s future carbon tax liability by 5-10% due to the 1386 tons of CO2 emissions saved each year by not having to rely on coal-produced electricity.