As we end another year of loadshedding shocks and horror, new information paints a bright picture for the country’s solar installation industry.

“Consumers have installed more rooftop and on-site solar contracted to private consumers in the last year-and-a-half than in the past 10 years under government programmes,” .

Dominic Goncalves, a Decarbonisation Advisor at Cresco Project Finance

“For industry experts, this is a staggering figure – what took almost 10 years under public programmes took little over a year once regulations were lifted and loadshedding incentivised the private residential, commercial, industrial and agricultural sectors to build their own resilience and get off the grid.”

In 2010, South Africa set up the Renewable Energy Independent Power Producer Procurement Programme (REIPPP), which on a global level was hailed as one of the ‘best practice’ ways of implementing renewable energy.  Goncalves was involved in three massive-scale projects at the time – Khi, Kaxu and Xina Solar One, which produce about 250MW of solar power into the grid in the Northern Cape. “Ninety-two of these projects were installed between 2011 and 2016, which account for about 6300MW of solar and wind generation. Those projects unfortunately came to a grinding halt as Eskom and government forces put a stop to the programme, arguably to force through a nuclear deal with Russia instead,” says Goncalves.

South Africas solar boom is just beginning

The programme was restarted in 2019, with the current installed base sitting at 3500MW of wind-generated power and 2300MW of solar-generated power as of August 2023. However, the burden and grid strain caused by increased loadshedding since mid-2022 to date has caused nearly every progressive-thinking South African to explore ways to get off Eskom’s grid and have their electricity supply as much ‘in their own hands’ as possible, explains the energy efficiency expert. “Diesel generators are expensive – more than Eskom’s power – but solar power has become cheaper than Eskom, in almost every application. Although it only works roughly 30% of the year (when the sun is shining) during this 30% you can have your own power at a cheaper rate than what you’d pay for Eskom when there’s no load-shedding, and in off-peak hours,” says Goncalves.

In the space of a year, the installed base of private solar power systems went from 981MW in March 2022 to 4750MW by August this year. “Once regulations were opened for businesses and homeowners, solar installations shot past government programmes in one tenth of the time it took to establish the government installations. This can be attributed to three factors, says Goncalves. “The price of solar systems decreased more than 90% from 2008 to 2023. Solar is cheaper than Eskom power, meaning consumers can achieve savings on installing a system versus not having such an installation. There is an increasingly lower payback period, and the business case makes sense.

“Regulations prevented private consumers from installing projects above 1MW until 2021. Once permitted, a flurry of demand from mines, smelters, industrial facilities, data centres, hospitals, shopping malls and other larger loads all began developing solar projects – ideally on their roofs and on-site if there was enough space. If space was limited, power was ‘wheeled in’ from other parts of the country, using Eskom’s grid to transport it.

“Increased loadshedding. Diesel is approximately 10 times the cost of solar power. Diesel works 100% of the time, while solar works 30% of the time. The best way you can get your diesel cost down is to install solar to offset your diesel when the solar is operating,” says Goncalves.

Solar’s pros and cons

Eskom, along with most power utility providers around the world, considers solar installations as somewhat of a double-edged sword.

“Solar is variable. It is great when it is producing power. But even with batteries, solar installations cannot store power for long periods. This means that during winter months, when there are extended periods of no sun, all that fleet of gigawatts of solar power – for a week at a time, for example – can be of no use at all. It is during these times that the power is often needed most. It is well known prior to installing a system that solar will only work 30% of the time, during daylight hours and with high seasonality – more in summer, less in winter. This can be planned and worked around”.

What solar does do is to free up electricity demand and strain on the grid, which allows Eskom to (hopefully) perform much-needed maintenance. “Solar relieves the consumer of the need to burn diesel generators, which are much more expensive. It enables consumers – whether residential or commercial or industrial – to retain some autonomy of their electricity supply in their homes and their businesses in a country where public service delivery, especially electricity, has a very poor track record with little expectation of improvement in the short to medium term,” adds the expert.

Solar sales and installations are booming in South Africa – and around the world. It is good for the climate and good for the environment, and there are few if any drawbacks from installing a photovoltaic system to become more in control of own your electricity supply. “It will be interesting to see, in five years’ time, how much more solar is installed – considering the past year-and-a-half’s record figures – how much load that takes off Eskom’s grid and how much load-shedding it will avoid. It may not be the silver bullet against loadshedding, but it is certainly one of the main ones that consumers, for a change, are in control of

Categories: Solar

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