By Zandi Shabalala
KROONSTAD South Africa (Reuters) - A South African village has become the first in the world to be powered by fuel cells, companies behind the project said on Tuesday, in a new scheme which could help remote areas of the continent access electricity for the first time.
South Africa suffers from power shortages and state-run utility Eskom is struggling to keep up with rising electricity demand, while around 2 million poorer households live without any access to the grid.
"What we have here is a world first,” said Chris Griffith, chief executive of Anglo American Platinum, which is partnering with Canadian-listed Ballard Power Systems in piloting the project.
"Fuel cell mini-grid technology is a cost-competitive alternative to grid electrification in these remote areas and could accelerate access to electricity," Amplats said.
Amplats is investing around $20 million in the "mini-grid", which will function independently from the national grid.
The pilot system can generate 15 kilowatts (kW) and a maximum of 60 kW when extra batteries kick in, which will be used to power up 34 homes in a remote community in Naledi in the Free State province for a 12-month trial period.
Amplats and Ballard will cover the pilot scheme costs but hope to make the fuel cell system profitable by tapping into an estimated 600,000 South African households in areas beyond the reach of the grid and millions more throughout the continent.
Fuel cells use a chemical reaction and offer a cleaner alternative to lead-acid batteries. They are already used for in industrial machinery and domestic refrigerators.
The fuel cells use methanol, hydrogen and platinum to produce electricity and a wider roll out of the pilot could give some support to South Africa's struggling platinum sector.
If the fuel cell system is widely adopted about 7,500 ounces of platinum will be used in production over the next 15 years, Amplats and the government said.
(Editing by Joe Brock and Mark Potter)