SOUTH AFRICA: Energy Crisis Powers Businesses’ Desire for Self-sufficiency

By William Van Wyk

The provision of stable electricity is one of the most divisive topics in South Africa, especially when businesses and citizens watch helplessly as the country is plunged into bouts of load shedding at increasingly more regular intervals, and with almost no notice. While new Finance Minister Enoch Godongwana said in his mini-budget that state-owned enterprises are in for “tough love,” Eskom itself raised the spectre of internal sabotage being behind the frequent breakdowns.

While the anger is understandable, it means that there is a pressing need to take action, and this means taking ownership of the infrastructure we need.

The overwhelming majority of commercial and industrial activities on this continent are utterly dependent on local infrastructure. As South Africa, like the rest of sub-Saharan Africa, looks to sail off to economic growth after the devastating pandemic, it is instead anchored in place by an unreliable electricity grid.

So, what can we do? We have an abundance of sunlight on our continent which we can, and should, harness by deploying more solar photovoltaic (PV) systems. There are two practical considerations: we self-generate through installations of various combinations to set up grid-dependent or hybrid solar solutions or we develop total off-grid installations which are ideal in more remote regions. While this sounds simple, the reality is more complicated.

Making solar affordable for all

Perhaps the biggest challenge over the past decade has been the struggle where the solution is monetised to a point where it is the preserve of the wealthy, at the exclusion of everyone else. This is unsustainable and is where the tipping point lies. As a sub-Saharan region, we need to take ownership of the commercialisation of our resources in an environment where all the components needed in facilitating solutions are already available.

The capital is there, and it can be done. However, somewhere along the line, the system failed, meaning many businesses were excluded due to the cost. As a result, there is a need to find an equilibrium where it is still commercially viable but accessible enough for a far broader spread of businesses to be able to benefit from the technology. The tipping point pits the misaligned commercialisation of the technology against the actual need itself.

For example, let’s consider a mine that wants to invest in a solar installation. It starts with an investor or investors that make the money available. Then, you have the developer whose job is to execute against expectations within budget. This is the first area where alignment is crucial. Beneath the developer you have contractors on the civil and electrical side, which are distinct.

For the purposes of looking at the actual electrical side, consider that sitting just below the developer are third-party consulting engineering firms that are tasked with independently managing applications against expectations. The next level down is the components level – this looks at the modules, or the actual PV panels, where each supplier’s products are suited to specific applications and so the consulting engineer needs to decide on which module manufacturer is suitable for this application.

Once that’s been done, the structure itself comes into consideration – this is what the modules are mounted onto. Again, there are different options that are more suited to some applications over others. Once this has been addressed, the specific fit-for-purpose cabling must be chosen, and then there’s the inverter, or the heartbeat of the system. This is where the power from the modules gets converted into AC power. The crucial nature here is aligning with the expectations of the mining plant – what does it need from a base load perspective and what is the expected maximum capacity load?

If the application demands constant energy supply or if the mine is in a remote area, there must be reliable energy storage. Here, the decision could be to go for a DC-coupled storage system or an AC-coupled system. All these elements talk about the microgrid’s capability to produce what was set out to produce in the first place.

While this is a very simplified description, it alludes to the multi-tiered and complex nature of energy management – and the myriad supply chains. If there is misalignment along any tier in this process the consumer suffers, which in this example, would be the mine.

To compound matters, there are a number of cheaper solutions that have flooded the market but aren’t necessarily aligned with specific applications. Added to this complexity are government regulations – across various regions, including import taxes and duties, grid code compliances and other challenges which reign back investment appetite.

The steps to self-sufficiency

In the face of all of this, how does one “take ownership”? It starts by being aware – aware of how the monetisation of projects currently happens and where the roadblocks typically sit, and then, importantly, becoming aware of your own energy usage and needs. In any application, be it commercial, manufacturing, or residential, the first step lies in appreciating that every aspect of your business is energy dependent. This aligns with FIMER’s Vision Statement where our vision is to shape a new and powerful energy model that uses the power of the sun to drive progress and prosperity for a cleaner and sustainable world.

Once a business has consolidated its energy needs, it must develop a clear five-to-ten-year plan on how to become energy independent. There are various mechanisms that are available. These include leases or power purchase agreements where there is no capital outlay for a company to introduce an alternative energy source such as solar, and where a third party would sell back the generated power at a premium rate. On the other hand, a business with the appetite and capital can make the investment itself.

Whichever route the roadmap takes, it starts with awareness and then a commitment to take ownership of critical energy infrastructure. Developing independence from the grid puts your business in control, even in times of crisis. As a global leader in solar inverter technology, we have the energy to make positive change happen. We are committed to leveraging the energy playing field to serve growing demands with clean, affordable energy which truly benefits people and places.

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