Using Platinum to Power Off-Grid Communities

By Kleantha Pillay, Head of Market Development, Precious Metals, Anglo American

Using Platinum to Power Off-Grid Communities

South Africa like many developing countries faces an acute power shortage. The lack of reliable access to electricity is an impediment on economic growth, investment and development.

Anglo American Platinum is deeply rooted in South Africa, where much of the world’s mineable supply of platinum is found. As a mining company, we are aware of our responsibilities to provide additional value to the local economy above and beyond our direct contribution to employment, infrastructure and national revenues.

Anglo American established the Platinum Group Metal Investment Programme to invest in emerging technologies that employ the metals, beyond their existing uses in catalytic converters and jewellery. The purpose of this is twofold – it builds markets for our product; and it opens up opportunities for beneficiation. Out of this fund, we have built a partnership with Ballard Power Systems, a global leader in fuel cell technology, to develop a fuel cell mini-grid product, which uses platinum as a catalyst and is fuelled by methanol. This approach could, we hope, become a sustainable solution for off-grid communities.

The technology is currently being demonstrated in a field trial with 34 rural households at the Naledi Trust community outside of Kroonstad, South Africa.

If deployed more widely, it has the potential to bring electricity to the approximately 600,000 South African homes that do not currently have electricity, and that are in areas where the national utility, Eskom, may not build grid infrastructure for several years.

This is a scalable solution that can be built to match the needs of individual communities, and it is clean, generating mostly water as a by-product.

At a community level, the impacts can be huge. Rural power improves health outcomes by reducing dependence on wood or paraffin for cooking, and by allowing local clinics to refrigerate vaccines and medicines. Electricity supply at schools enables improved teaching methods, while electric pumps can be used to irrigate agricultural land and improve rural livelihoods.

The micro-grids could also have wider economic benefits. The power system was designed and integrated in South Africa by local engineers, and it was built and installed by local contractors. Operations, maintenance and refueling are also being carried out by South African businesses.

The assembly and manufacturing of the fuel cell stacks is not yet located in South Africa, but a commitment from the state to procure and deploy these systems could kick-start the industry, thereby building an export base to supply the rest of the continent.

It is clear from our trials that South Africa has the necessary skills and capabilities to develop this industry, which could expand into manufacturing components for other fuel cell applications, such as back-up power systems for telecoms towers, personal electronic devices and parts for fuel cell vehicles.

This is an initiative with mutual benefits. One of the challenges of the beneficiation drive is that companies can find themselves involved in industries that are non-core. We wanted to take a more strategic approach to beneficiation
– one that both builds sustainable markets for our products, and which truly adds value to the local economy, creating employment and driving social and economic growth.

So while this is a small, off-grid electrification scheme, it is both replicable and sustainable. It enables consumers to measure their energy usage and manage to a budget. The wider economy also benefits through local procurement and skills development. It is we hope a good example of how the private sector can make a contribution to wider development goals while also working to longer-term business principles.

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