South Africa’s ‘silent revolution’ as those with money go solar

  • Power crisis drives South Africans to solar PV
  • Cost barrier widens the gap between rich and poor
  • Not selling back to the net a missed opportunity

JOHANNESBURG, Aug 15 (Reuters) – Thanks to his solar panels on the roof, Pierre Moureau only notices the blackouts that regularly plunge South Africans into darkness when complaints surface in the WhatsApp group of his Johannesburg neighborhood.

“I have a certain standard of living,” says the 68-year-old financial planner, who likes to relax in his home sauna. “I want to be able to live as I am.”

As a deepening power crisis hampers Africa’s most industrialized economy and sparks public anger, President Cyril Ramaphosa has vowed to cut red tape to boost coal-addicted South Africa’s use of renewable energy.

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But many South Africans are not waiting for government action and their impatience has led to a boom in small-scale solar installations.

“I can’t be without power. It’s that simple,” says Moureau, whose panels power both his home and his adjacent office. “Every minute I’m down costs me money.”

In the first five months of this year alone, South Africa imported solar panels worth nearly 2.2 billion rand ($135 million), an analysis of customs data from Reuters shows. That equates to more than 500 megawatts of peak production capacity, analysts say.

Once installed, the panels will increase the estimated 2.1 gigawatts of existing small-scale solar generation capacity by approximately 24%, more than what the government has managed to acquire in a decade of its utility-scale solar energy strategy.

“It is totally ignored by the government how big the industry has become,” said Frank Spencer, spokesman for the South African Photovoltaic Industry Association. “It’s a quiet revolution.”

It is also a missed opportunity.

In a country that requires 4 to 6 gigawatts of additional production to end widespread power outages, known locally as load shedding, most systems are unregistered and do not return anything to the low-power grid.

And their high costs are, at least for now, only one solution to the relatively affluent, growing divide in what is already one of the world’s most unequal societies.

“If you have money, you can do it yourself,” says Solly Silaule, who, like nearly half of South Africans, is unemployed. “But the people who are suffering don’t have the money to buy those panels.”

‘WE HAVE HAD ENOUGH’

Despite abundant solar and wind resources, the government of South Africa has been reluctant to use renewable energy. Until its relaunch in 2021, pressure from mining unions had frozen a program of utility-scale private projects for years.

But the decline of debt-crippled state energy company Eskom, which produces 80% of its power from coal, has increased the urgency to find alternatives.

Tabi Tabi experienced this firsthand. In just one month last year, his solar company, Granville Energy, received 349 applications for roof systems.

“In the past, I’d say 24 months, we’ve seen a continuous increase month after month in demand,” he said. “We see interest across the board.”

By the time one of his clients, Leigh Driemel, decided to install a 42-panel system at her swimming academy last year, her monthly utility bill had risen to about 26,000 rand and power outages had begun forcing her to cancel classes.

“We would end up asking 300 rand for a swimming lesson,” she said. “Who’s going to pay for that? Our margins kept getting tighter.”

She is now insulated against blackouts and has cut her electricity bill by more than 40%.

Across South Africa, private residents as well as large and small businesses are making similar calculations.

Cheaper solar photovoltaics and batteries, as well as the relaxation last year of a regulation requiring government approval for systems over 1 megawatt, amplify the case for self-generated solar power.

“Everyone is saying, ‘Okay, we’ve had enough. We need a solution,’” said Mark Evans, director of Partners in Performance, a South African business consultancy.

RE-SELLING PROBLEM

Proponents of small-scale solar energy say South Africa still has a long way to go.

On a wall in Granville Energy’s headquarters, large screens show how much power customers’ solar systems are producing in real time. After the battery was fully charged, one house used only 20% of its generating capacity.

“It is sad and unfortunate that we are wasting so much capacity,” Tabi said.

Ramaphosa announced his planned reforms last month and said Eskom will set up a pricing structure to allow people with solar panels to sell electricity they don’t need back to the utility, a common practice in many countries.

As it stands, relatively few South African solar users supply power to the grid, and industry insiders say most small-scale systems have not been declared to authorities, despite a legal requirement to register them.

There are estimated to be more than 20,000 unregistered solar systems in Johannesburg alone, most of them residential, an official from the city’s power distributor said.

In the absence of attractive rates, these customers are increasingly going off-grid.

“They are lost to the power system forever,” the official, who asked not to be named, told Reuters. “It’s much better to keep them on the network, to be part of a working network community.”

A fair buyback rate for power could encourage more South Africans to register and plug in their systems and give Eskom breathing space.

But it will probably do little to overcome the main obstacle for most potential rooftop solar customers: cost.

As banks begin to help, with ABSA (ABSPp.J) and Nedbank (NEDJ.J) offering dedicated small-scale solar financing products, rooftop systems remain out of reach for most poor South Africans like Prince Mkhize.

He works at a car wash in Alexandra, the low-income, high-crime community located across a busy highway from Sandton – Johannesburg’s financial district dubbed “Africa’s richest square mile.”

When the power outage hits, Mkhize can’t run his jetwash or vacuum cleaner and sees disappointed potential customers come and go.

“We are here for eight hours without cars,” he said. “If there’s loadshedding, there’s no work.”

($1 = 16,2430 rand)

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Reporting by Joe Bavier and Promit Mukherjee; edit by Barbara Lewis

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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