THIS year solar energy will begin to "stand on its own feet, without government subsidies" as it can now compete globally with conventional power on capital cost alone.

This is according to Johan Cilliers, regional director of global photovoltaic solar system provider First Solar.

South Africa’s share of energy from renewable sources is growing, and the government has given the green light to projects from the first "window" of the Department of Energy’s Independent Power Producer (IPP) procurement programme, which is expected to supply the country with 3,725MW of power by 2016.

"Last year more than 1,000 solar companies went bankrupt, but we need more and more energy.

"This will be a watershed year (for solar energy worldwide) in which accounts and projects will be consolidated," Mr Cilliers said on Tuesday. "This year will be the first year solar (energy) will stand on its own feet without government subsidies because the price has come down heavily with continuous technological improvement."

First Solar would submit pro-posals in the department’s third IPP "window", Mr Cilliers said. The deadline for submitting proposals is in August.

South Africa needed to change its energy mix to meet its international promise to reduce its emissions "trajectory" by 34% in 2020 and 42% by 2025, if certain conditions were met. South Africa was one of the world’s top 15 emitters of greenhouse gases.

In the department’s integrated resource plan for electricity, renewable energy will account for 42% of new electricity capacity by 2030.

Global wind power expanded almost 20% last year to 282GW of total installed capacity, while solar power reached more than 100GW, according to the Global Wind Energy Council.

First Solar viewed South Africa as a springboard into the rest of sub-Saharan Africa — its North African operations were managed from its Middle East office in Dubai, Mr Cilliers said.

The country is in desperate need of more energy after a decade in which state-owned power utility Eskom’s pleas for investment in generation capacity were ignored. The company has begun a R300bn build programme, with about 20,000MW of additional capacity due to be online by 2025.

Mr Cilliers said the electricity tariff hikes necessitated by Eskom’s build programme, and the reduction in the cost of installing solar power, meant solar power generation could now compete with conventional generation.

In the past it could not without the "life-cycle costs" such as coal mining’s environmental effects being taken into account.

The Department of Energy’s Integrated Resource Plan, through which it has planned the transformation of South Africa’s "energy mix" to 2030, forecasts that by then, 14% of the country’s energy will come from coal, 22.6% from nuclear, 9.2% from open-cycle gas turbine 5.6% from closed-cycle gas turbine, 6.1% from renewable energy carriers including hydro, 19.7% from wind, 2.4$ from concentrated solar power and 19.7% from photovoltaic solar power.