Africa’s Only Solar Panel Manufacturer Shines Brightly

Professor Vivian Alberts is sitting in a small office above a hi-tech solar factory set among rolling vineyards in sunny Stellenbosch, South Africa. “We want to offer to the government and people of South Africa a completely optimised South African photovoltaic system built by South Africans for the South African market,” he says, beaming. He sees the country as an emerging solar super power, and he’s had a role in building it. By JEFFREY BARBEE.

When South Africa was emerging from apartheid in 1993, Professor Vivian Alberts and his students were busy developing traditional silicon photovoltaic solar systems in his lab at the University of Johannesburg. Expensive silicon is the classic way that the sun’s energy has been harvested for electrical power since 1954, but today Alberts is trying something different, helping create the continent’s energy future using a proprietary glass coating called thin film, and there is no silicon here.

His big new discovery for a thin film coating for glass was announced in 2007. Although the race for something to replace traditional silicon has many players, not only is Albert’s factory the only one in South Africa, it is the only full manufacturing plant for photovoltaic modules on the whole continent.