An aerial view of Protea Heights Academy in Cape Town. Picture: Supplied.
An aerial view of Protea Heights Academy in Cape Town. Picture: Supplied.

Sun Exchange, a Cape Town-based blockchain company that lets individuals buy into solar energy projects, is in talks to supply renewable power to eight schools run by the Western Cape’s education department.

The company, whose backers include global hedge fund Alphabit, has signed agreements with Cape Town’s Protea Heights Academy and one other school in the province, “and we are in advanced discussions with at least another six schools”, Sun Exchange founder and CEO Abraham Cambridge told Business Day.

“We expect many schools will follow suit soon,” Cambridge said. The Western Cape’s education and economic opportunities departments had “committed to expedite efforts to help schools go solar”.

These on-site solar projects would ease demand on SA’s overloaded national grid and “significantly reduce the schools’ carbon footprints”, he said.

Rather than paying upfront installation costs, Sun Exchange’s school and business clients lease solar cells from the individuals who buy into these projects. Investors receive rental income via a payment system based on blockchain – the technology that powers cryptocurrencies.

Beverley Schäfer, minister of economic opportunities for the Western Cape, said the province “is committed to growing our green economy and to transitioning our province, including our schools, away from coal-based, centralised electricity generation”.

“We are future-proofing our schools against rising energy prices,” Schäfer said in a statement.

The Protea Heights Academy project is Sun Exchange’s eighth solar installation in SA. The company has previously installed solar infrastructure at Stellenbosch Waldorf School, Sacred Heart College in Johannesburg, a recycled plastics plant in Cape Town, and Knysna Elephant Park.

Cambridge said the most recent wave of Eskom load-shedding, and the state utility’s steep tariff hikes, had resulted in “a spike in inquiries” about solar projects.

“Load-shedding is a harsh and very real reminder about how outdated and inefficient SA’s current energy system is,” he said.

“The key in SA is to shift away from full dependence on centralised, coal-based energy and towards decentralised, clean power generation.”

Eskom is burning large amounts of diesel to keep the lights on in SA while its ailing fleet of power stations experiences unplanned outages due, in part, to years of inadequate maintenance.

The fleet’s energy availability factor — a measure for plant performance — has historically been kept above 80%, but according to Eskom’s data as of March 31 has measured just over 63% in the year to date.