JOHANNESBURG - Petrochemicals group Sasol, the world's leader in making motor fuel from coal, plans to reduce its carbon footprint by capturing its emissions, producing solar power and making its plants more efficient.
Henri Loubser, project director at the company's New Energy unit, said a public-private partnership between Sasol, other energy firms and a South African university would start producing thin film solar modules within 2-1/2 years.
We are still speaking two and a half years before the facility can realistically be operational, Loubser told journalists on Friday.
A South African team of scientists invented the design for the solar panels, which consist of micro-thin metallic film -- only five microns thick -- that converts light into energy at a fraction of the cost of conventional panels.
The Thin Film Solar Technology (TFST) joint venture will build a power plant to produce 40 MW using the film, he said.
Sasol, ranked second after power utility Eskom the country's top polluter, reported total carbon emissions in South Africa for the financial year to end-June of 62 million tonnes.
The firm, criticized by environmentalists for doing little to streamline its operations toward a carbon-free economy, said it had set a target to reduce its emissions intensity by 15 percent across its operations by 2020 from a 2005 baseline.
It also plans to make new coal-to-liquids (CTL) plants more efficient by reducing emissions of those built before 2020 by 20 percent and those built before 2030 by 30 percent.
Loubser said producing energy from solar sources, of which there is an abundance in South Africa, will be a focus for the company, and Sasol plans to make a choice which type of concentrated solar power technology it will pursue by next June.
Loubser said Sasol also plans to make its power generation units cleaner by either converting natural gas to electricity or by building nuclear plants to power its operations.
We will consider a technology step like that (in nuclear) ... it's baseload power and it's a proven technology, he said.
The company said switching from coal to natural gas already reduces its plant's emissions by 40 percent.
In the long term it will also invest in producing power from hydro sources, preferably from countries around South Africa.
Sasol would like to store emissions from its power plants.
It currently captures between 20-30 million tonnes of carbon dioxide from its Secunda CTL plant a year but it flares the carbon into the air as it has yet to find a proper storage site.
Sasol plans to generate half of its power needs by 2012 to beat rising electricity prices and to reduce its dependence on the national grid, especially as utility Eskom struggles to supply fast rising demand from industrial and residential users.
(Reporting by Agnieszka Flak; editing by Sue Thomas)