Top solar technology used for Algoa FM green building
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Top solar technology used for Algoa FM green building

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Algoa FM staff were thrilled when in January 2020 they finally moved into their purpose-built, iconic, green building in Port Elizabeth’s Baakens Valley. In a bold step towards becoming self-sufficient, the building, with the help of Rubicon Renewables, generates a significant portion of its own power.  

The client’s requirements 

When Algoa FM started planning their new building, they knew they faced a rise of between 50 - 80% in their electricity bills, as they moved away from a communal office environment with subsidised power. On top of this, the radio station wanted to ensure they built a sustainable, self-sufficient building which was immune to South Africa’s unreliable electricity supply and rapidly escalating power tariffs.  

Rubicon’s brief was to assist with the planning and technology to integrate renewables where possible and guarantee a lowered electricity bill. From the architect’s perspective, the building needed to comply with national regulations which require new buildings to adhere to certain energy efficiency levels.  

Challenges 

Architects had limited space with which to work when designing the Algoa FM building due to the flood-line of the nearby Baakens River cutting across the property. They built upwards, resulting in a four-storey building and restrictions against additional buildings in the parking lot. This left very little space to install solar PV panels. Director of Rubicon Renewables, Greg Blandford, knew that installing solar panels on the roof alone wouldn’t be enough to completely offset the company’s energy usage and that he’d have to think out of the box.  

The solution 

Solar photovoltaic panels: Solar photovoltaic (PV) panels by CanadianSolar totalling 29kW were installed by Dorman Projects flush across the entire double pitch roof in east and west-facing orientations. In Port Elizabeth, solar panels are most effective when north-facing and at a 31 tilt. Because this wasn’t possible due to the design of the building, Rubicon selected panels with the addition of SolarEdge technology. This cutting-edge Israeli technology optimises power generation at tilts and orientations that aren’t ideal. With this technology, every watt generated is used, even when parts of one or more panels are in shade. In traditional solar panel arrangements, the power generating capacity of all panels decrease even when only one panel is shaded. The SolarEdge portal allows AlgoaFM to monitor and manage the performance of the panels. 

Solar photovoltaic panel awnings: Because there was limited roof space to install solar panels on, Rubicon suggested a way to generate extra power for the building. Translucent, glass Longi 275Wp frameless mono PERC solar panels were used in place of traditional, metal awnings on the north-facing side of the building. These unique awnings serve a dual purpose. They contribute 11kW of power - more than a quarter of the building’s total solar generating capacity. They also shade the building, preventing high levels of light and heat from entering it and negating the need for double-glazed windows.  

Rubicon worked closely with the architects and engineers to ensure that structures were built into the building which could support the weight of these 20kg panels, as well as the force exerted on them by the wind. This included steel cantilevers for the panels to lie on, rubber-padded clamps to sandwich the glass in place without breaking it, and enough space for all the necessary wiringSurprisingly, these striking solar awnings proved more cost-effective than traditional solutions. This is the first time in South Africa that these translucent solar panels have been used as awnings.  

Now, for approximately six hours each day, the building utilizes mostly solar energy. In the six months since both the roof panels and the solar awnings were installed, they have covered 27% of the building’s total energy use.  

Off-grid solar lighting: Rubicon provided four off-grid solar lights which have been placed in the parking lot in front of the Algoa FM building. The French Sunna Design iSSL+ all-in-one solar streetlight consists of a fitting with a solar panel on top, an LED panel underneath and a battery housed inside 

Rubicon chose these high-tech lights for their longevity and resilience to the South African climate. Solar lights typically use lithium batteries, which last for a maximum of two years when exposed to high temperatures and temperature fluctuations. The Sunna Design lights use Nickel-Metal Hydride (NiMH) batteries which can last as long as 15 years in extreme climatesThe LEDs are of a much higher quality than most outdoor solar lights.  

These intelligent, energy-efficient lights dim automatically at quiet times of the night and revert back to full brightness when their built-in motion sensors detect movement. This is perfect for the radio station where staff work around the clock, often leaving or arriving at work in the middle of the night. Algorithms control how much energy is used, to ensure that there’s enough power to provide light even after a cloudy day.  

Bluetooth capability allows the lights to communicate with each other and to be controlled and programmed using a mobile device. Because the lights look like normal streetlights, they’re less likely to be stolen. Additionally, their award-winning design means that the batteries and solar panels will only work for the application for which they were designed – streetlights. Thieves are unlikely to steal multiple lights once they’ve realised the parts can’t be used to charge phones or provide power for other uses.  

Electric vehicle charger: An EVBox Elvi 11kW 3 phase AC electric vehicle charger was installed in the parking lot as an investment into the long-term sustainability of Algoa FM’s green building. The charger is powered indirectly by the building’s solar panels – which means the user ultimately gets free energy! Soon after the charger was installed, it had its first user - nothing less than an all-electric Jaguar I-Pace.  

Client feedback 

Rubicon’s recommendations received excellent reviews from Algoa FM as well as the architects who designed the building.  

“I’m very impressed with the result of the limited PV panels we could fit on the site. We couldn’t go completely off-grid because of our limited footprint, but the solar panels augment the user’s usage tremendously. I was particularly impressed with the solar lighting.” – Johann Staats, director, Studio D'Arc Architects 

“The solar awnings came out perfectly! It upped our ability to produce power by about 30% and it solved the problem of shading at a better cost than we would’ve paid for metal. We haven’t had a day’s issues with any of the solutions that were provided. It was a smooth, painless process.” – Chris Wright, technical manager, Algoa FM 

“We had a very good working relationship with RubiconIt was a fantastic team effort. It all came together very nicely and we see this as the start of a continued relationship with Rubicon.” – Craig Billson, director, Studio D'Arc Architects  

“Algoa FM is a modern building encompassing stylish architecture that embraces renewable energy. It shows what can be achieved when a little architectural ingenuity is applied. The canopies and inclusion of solar is well engineered to produce energy. A great project, and great teamwork as always with Rubicon.” - Errol Dorman, owner, Dorman Projects 

The future 

Rubicon proposed a second phase for Algoa FM’s renewables portfolio, to increase the amount of energy they’re able to generate and allow them to go completely off-grid. This will include erecting carports with solar panels on them and installing a battery to store excess power for use at night or during power outages. New technology will link the solar panels to the back-up generator – reducing the company’s reliance on diesel during power outages. Algoa FM hopes to proceed with the second phase within the next three to five years.  

Products used

rubicon group