Eskom’s failures have had a positive consequence – people are increasingly investing in environmentally friendly solar systems to generate their own electricity. More houses are sporting solar panels on their roofs and technicians seem to be working on new installations in every suburb.
“Nobody trusts Eskom anymore,” says Johannes van der Walt, director of Powerhour Solar in George.
Powerhour is one of several large firms in the area that install solar systems in surrounding towns and on farms, and it is worth mentioning that only a few small businesses were operating in the industry 15 years ago.
“It is not a luxury to purchase some kind of backup system for your home anymore – it became a necessity,” says Van der Walt.
“It is not only the discomfort of regular load shedding that is a factor. Lots of people are working from home, with most needing a reliable electricity supply to have internet access.
“Students and school children still rely on online education to a varying degree. Security is also a factor. You simply cannot sit in the dark.”
Van der Walt noted something very important: “You will be surprised how many people rely on some kind of medical device – mostly electronic.”
Preparing for power cuts starts with buying a few lights. Hardware stores and most supermarkets stock rechargeable light bulbs. These bulbs simply replace the normal bulb in light fittings and use a small built-in battery when there is no electricity.
It is anybody’s guess how good they are at around R50 each. “It will last until the battery is flat and maybe needs replacement after six months or a year,” said the local electrician, “but they are much cheaper than a candle falling over and burning down the house.”
Strip lighting under kitchen cupboards works well too, connected to a battery similar to those found in alarm systems and gate and garage door openers.
The next step would be to change the whole lighting system in the house to run permanently off a (bigger) battery. This is as easy as separating the lighting circuit and connecting it to a battery and a small inverter. Only a small battery charger will be necessary to keep the battery charged.
Next step, a mobile system
To run more equipment, some people buy a mobile system. These are usually built into a square case, housing one or two batteries, and an inverter (with built-in charger) – and can be wheeled to any room where electricity is needed during a period of load shedding.
At around R3 000 to R7 000, it can power lights, a television, computer and similar devices that don’t draw too much current at once.
Van der Walt says a lot of people are actually looking beyond these emergency-like solutions and opt to wire all the lights in their houses and a few plugs points permanently to a separate circuit, as the first step towards becoming more independent of a failing electricity network.
“This is when many homeowners also start adding solar panels to incrementally build a bigger grid-tied or off-grid system. However, more and more people install solar panels right from the start,” he says.
A quick look at prices at different suppliers shows that R20 000 to R40 000 can buy you quite a decent system to keep you going during load shedding.
Van der Walt noted that solar panel prices have been increasing lately, after previously declining year after year while technology improved and production increased.
“Currently, we are struggling to import panels to satisfy growing demand, partly due to problems at SA’s ports,” he says.
“The only local manufacturer of solar panels closed down,” adds Van der Walt.
The other bits and pieces, such as inverters, controllers and batteries followed the same trend as solar panel prices. “I would not say that equipment is becoming cheaper anymore, but the technology has improved tremendously,” says Van der Walt, adding that ever-increasing electricity tariffs are shortening the payback period with every increase.
As an example, he mentions newer solar geysers that use photovoltaic (PV) panels to warm water in place of the older solar geysers that warm water in tubes. An array of PV panels with capacity of around 900 watts is enough to power the geyser directly.
The system can be retrofitted to existing geysers by replacing the heating element in the geyser with a special low-power titanium element. “The payback of the cost is measured in months, rather years,” says Van der Walt, “due to the high cost of electricity and the fact that geysers are one of the things that use the most electricity in any house.”
The next phase is installing a system big enough to generate enough power to make a household independent.
Nowadays, it is possible for an investment starting at R120 000, depending on how many people stay in the house and their lifestyle.
It assumes changing, for instance, to a solar geyser and a gas stove and oven, as well as energy-efficient appliances overall.
Systems linked to the national grid (grid-tied) tend to be smaller and some electricity is still taken from the municipality.
More solar panels and more and better batteries, as well as a top-end inverter, ensure an off-grid system where the residence is not connected to the local electricity network at all.
“Many households generate excess electricity that goes to waste,” says Van der Walt, explaining that pumping power back into the national grid is possible “in theory” only.
He says there are too many practical and administrative hurdles, such as an electricity meter that can feed power back into the grid. The homeowner needs to fork out some R3 000 for one of these.
“Then the municipality will pay only 13c per kilowatt hour when buying electricity from one of my clients – but sells the electricity back to them at R3 per unit when they use it.
“Look here,” says Van der Walt, turning his computer screen around. “This is one of my client’s systems, linked via internet. It’s barely 11am, his batteries are 100% charged. Look, the PV array [is] switched off and is producing nothing at the moment.”
He argues that load shedding will reduce if all the excess power from thousands of small scale embedded systems could be fed back into the grid.
In theory, households can supplement electricity supply during the day to run businesses, and should then be able to tap into the network in the evenings after businesses close.
Van der Walt says he and his clients expect little improvement in electricity supply. “It is becoming normal practice to include a solar geyser and a solar system for generating electricity when building a new house,” he says.
This is all good news for the environment, as it results in less dependence on Eskom and its dirty coal power plants and expensive diesel generators.
However, it is bad news for Eskom’s finances, as well as the finances of local municipalities.
It is the best-paying customers who can afford to invest in solar systems. They are probably the same people who would have bought Eskom bonds, if they hadn’t had to invest the R150 000 or R200 000 in their own electricity systems.
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