Innovation is name of game as firms tackle solar power inequality
Studying in SA is a race against time for Reginald van Wyk as he tries to finish his online coursework before scheduled daily power cuts make learning impossible.
A member of the Cape Town Society for the Blind, the 43-year-old is studying computer skills through the charity, which offers support and training to about 120 blind and visually impaired people.
“We don’t need light because we can’t see, but we need power to listen to our audio coursework on the computer,” Van Wyk said at the society’s computer lab. “Our studies have been impacted.”
Blackouts intended to take pressure off the ailing Eskom power grid have worsened again since early 2022, leaving South Africans without electricity for up to 10 hours each day.
As part of national efforts to tackle the energy crisis, the government in March created a new post — minister of electricity — and handed it to Kgosientsho Ramokgopa whose plans include extending the life of Eskom’s coal-fired power stations and maintaining large outlays on diesel for the power utility’s emergency open-cycle gas turbines.
The minister has also vowed to auction more than 15,000MW of renewable energy project tenders — capacity that is equal to powering 9.75-million homes, according to Eskom estimates that 1MW can supply about 650 homes.
In the meantime, individuals, organisations and private companies who can afford to do so are rushing to buy solar power systems to keep their homes and businesses running. But the cost of solar installations puts constant power out of reach for many citizens and small firms, causing lost earnings, business closures and job losses.
Some companies are financing innovations to support citizens or charities who would otherwise be left in the dark — be it through portable or pay-as-you-go solar systems.
The Cape Town Society for the Blind, for example, will get solar panels and battery storage in the coming weeks through support from online solar marketplace Sun Exchange and cash from reinsurance company Hannover Re.
Hleziphi Siyothula-Mtshizana, the founder of In Pursuit Renewable Energy, an energy services company, said companies were “moving away from just donating food parcels to communities”.
“Corporates are playing a significant role in transitioning the (energy) industry to be more inclusive,” she told a solar power conference in Johannesburg.
Aware of the high costs of solar for a charity, Cape Town Society for the Blind head Judith Coetzee approached Sun Exchange after seeing the company help schools, housing estates and farms get panels. Sun Exchange enables individual buyers to buy solar cells with cash or bitcoin for crowdfunded projects in emerging economies and then lease them to schools, businesses and other organisations which pay the investors for the power.
The company recently began partnering with businesses to encourage them to use their social investment budgets to sponsor or invest in “measurable renewable energy projects”, according to Mike Pearce, Sun Exchange’s corporate partner manager. The partnership involving the Cape Town Society for the Blind and Hannover Re is its third such arrangement to date, with more in the pipeline, he said.
For the charity, the support could not have come sooner, as power cuts have hampered production and delivery of its woven products like baskets and chairs, costing it about R1-million in sales each year, it said.
Through Hannover Re's donation of R1-million and sales made on Sun Exchange’s site, the charity will get 53KW worth of solar panels and 80KW/h of battery storage, which Pearce said would keep it “up and running” during a power cut.
“That is really the game changer,” he said.
Excess energy generated by the solar system will be sold back to the grid, bringing in extra income for the charity. The installation was expected to help it avoid 1,575 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions and save R2.2-million in costs over the project’s 20-year lifetime, Sun Exchange said.
Once the solar system is set up, the charity will lease it from Sun Exchange for 20 years, after which time it can either take over running it, remove it or extend the existing contract.
Sun Exchange is not alone in its drive to make clean energy more widely accessible and affordable for South Africans.
Property company Balwin has teamed up with local charity Light Up A Home since 2020 to fund and distribute portable solar panels to more than 80 households in informal settlements located near its housing developments.
“We have people who work in the apartments we build. How can they help clean and build these apartments and then go back home to darkness?” said Cindy Mkhize, a regional manager at the Balwin Foundation which does outreach work for the property firm.
Other innovations focus on accessible financing, with some banks beginning to offer small-scale solar financing products.
WiSolar, a solar distribution company, has launched a rent-to-own as well as a pay-as-you-go solar service for residents of affordable housing developments. It is rolling out solar infrastructure in such an estate in Cape Town for 2,400 homes.
“We don't believe solar should be something exclusive to the wealthy as it is right now,” its founder Tonye Irims said. “We think everybody should have a shot at enjoying and accessing solar electricity.”
President Cyril Ramaphosa last month announced plans to fast-track new wind, solar, battery storage and gas projects to close an urgent 6,000MW deficit, and create jobs in solar.
Companies are racing to fill the gaps, but privatising electricity production and storage comes with its own risks, energy researchers warn. It could increase the costs of doing business, which would be passed onto the consumer, said Kalnisha Singh, founder of KD Strategies, a social impact advisory firm.
Municipalities could become unable to subsidise services to the poor as they lose revenue from wealthy consumers who go off grid, the Gauteng City-Region Observatory said in a report.
But in Cape Town, allowing charities to sell power back to the grid could help maintain subsidies by lowering the cost of electricity for municipalities, said Pearce of Sun Exchange.
“Energy stability is arguably the single biggest crisis right now within SA,” he said. “Rolling out large-scale renewable energy will take quite a few years, so until then corporates really need to focus on unlocking all the smaller-scale projects for the benefit of society.”
Thomson Reuters Foundation
Would you like to comment on this article?
Sign up (it's quick and free) or sign in now.
Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.