Giant mirrors and solar panels in Northern Cape would reduce carbon emissions and generate one—tenth of the country's energy needs South Africa is to unveil plans this week for what it claims will be the world's biggest solar power plant — a radical step in a coal—dependent country where one in six people still lacks electricity.

The project, expected to cost up to 200bn rand (GBP18.42bn), would aim by the end of its first decade to achieve an annual output of five gigawatts (GW) of electricity — currently one-tenth of South Africa's energy needs.

Giant mirrors and solar panels would be spread across the Northern Cape province, which the government says is among the sunniest 3 per cent of regions in the world with minimal cloud or rain.

The government hopes the solar park will help reduce carbon emissions from Africa's biggest economy, which is still more than 90 per cent dependent on coal-fired power stations. Energy is already a high priority in South Africa where, at the end of racial apartheid, less than 40 per cent of households had electricity. Over 16 years the governing African National Congress has undertaken a huge national expansion, with a recent survey showing that 83 per cent are now connected, but power outages are still not uncommon in both townships and middle-class suburbs.

An estimated 200 foreign and domestic investors will meet this week in Upington, Northern Cape, with a view to funding the hugely ambitious solar project. A master plan will be set out by the US engineering and construction group Fluor. This follows a viability study by the Clinton Climate Initiative, which described South Africa's “solar resource” as among the best in the world.

De Vries, a special adviser to the energy minister, said the Northern Cape had been chosen for insolation readings (a measure of solar energy) that rank among the highest in the world. South Africa currently consumes 45-48GW of power per year. It is estimated this will double over the next 25 years. “In South Africa over 90 per cent of our power comes from the burning of coal and we need to reduce this because of our international obligations on climate change,” de Vries said. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2010