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Rolling blackouts — here are your options and what they are likely to cost you

Rolling blackouts — here are your options and what they are likely to cost you
Koeberg nuclear power station - rolling blackouts are likely to be with us for years to come and they may get worse. (Photo: Brent Meersman)

While there is a sliding scale of options available for South Africans to counter rolling blackouts, there are few affordable or viable grid alternatives for those living in informal settlements and RDP houses.

Rolling blackouts are likely to be with us for years to come and it may get worse. South Africans have every reason to complain about Eskom. But after complaining, households have to decide what to do to best cope with rolling blackouts.

Our country’s households range from families living on the streets of Johannesburg to the deep rural homesteads of the Eastern Cape to the shack settlements of every town in the country to the estates of Constantia. It’s impractical to write an article that has the best answer for everyone’s needs. For this article, we’ve had in mind households that use 250 to 650-kilowatt hours (kWh) of grid power per month. That covers most homes in the country.

What you do depends on how much money you are able or willing to spend. Below we list some reasonable options. We hope it helps to inform your decision.

Less than R10,000: Option 1 — small adjustments

For this amount of money you can convert to an affordable gas oven and stove, get battery operated or solar lights, and install a low-cost UPS to keep your router, cellphones and laptops going during rolling blackouts.

You might also consider buying a power pack for R300 to R1,100 to recharge your cellphone or even your laptop.

This option allows you to use electronic devices, have lights on and cook during blackouts. A gas oven/stove also makes you much less dependent on Eskom.

On the downside, you have to do a bit of fiddling with lights every time rolling blackouts start, and remember to charge lights and other devices when you have grid power. Also, a low-cost UPS may not get you through four-hour blackouts. And gas cooking devices may not be feasible in some apartment blocks. Gas cooking is also significantly more expensive than using the grid.

Albeit fiddly, this definitely works, quite well in fact. As rolling blackout stages rise though, it becomes harder.

Less than R40,000: Option 2 — small inverter/battery

Buy a 3kW inverter and battery and get an electrician to connect it to your house’s system.

This gets you through two-hour and, depending on your usage, four-hour blackouts. It’s more convenient than option one but pricier.

You might not be able to use your stove, geyser, borehole pump or pool pump with this inverter. If you use several electric devices during rolling blackouts, you’ll probably trip the system, but with frugal use this option definitely helps.

Less than R40,000: Option 3 — diesel generator (we hate this option)

This is unequivocally the worst option presented here but one many people have gone for. In some circumstances, such as apartment blocks with very little roof space, it may be unavoidable, but it should be considered the option of very last resort. Diesel generators are noisy, smelly, smoky, less safe and emit significant greenhouse gases. Your neighbourhood will not be pleased with you if you go this way. If too many of us choose this option, we’ll turn South Africa’s suburbs into a dystopia.

The cost of diesel is about R10 per kilowatt hour. A household that currently uses 400kWh per month of grid power can expect to spend R600 per month on diesel during stage 4 blackouts. This is not the road to independence from Eskom’s grid. Also, do you really want to be spending time constantly carting diesel from your local garage to your home and filling up a generator?

Less than R100,000: Option 4 — 5kW inverter plus one or two 5.1kWh batteries

Buying a 5kW inverter and one or two 5.1kWh batteries will even get you through four-hour blackouts. You can also use your oven, stove, borehole or pool pump, but probably not two or more of these at the same time (maybe you could use the pool pump plus one other). It is also a big step towards less dependence on Eskom.

There is one problem though: it still depends on Eskom to charge the batteries. If too many households go for this option without getting solar panels to charge the batteries, it will put enormous pressure on the grid and exacerbate rolling blackouts. But as an interim step before buying solar panels, it’s definitely worth considering.

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Less than R100,000: Option 5 — rent a solar system

A number of companies now offer decent solar setups for rent. At least one company offers a 5kW inverter, a 5.1kWh battery and eight solar panels for R1,580 per month. This is option 4 but with far less dependence on Eskom; you generate your own power.

A downside is that if you cancel within 36 months you pay a R20,000 fee, and R10,000 if you cancel in years four to six. Also, the monthly payment goes up annually. It’s also not clear who would get the income from selling electricity back to the grid, when that becomes an option, at least in Cape Town, in mid-2023.

This appears to be quite a new option, so read the contract carefully before proceeding. Customer reviews on Google range from glowing to stomping through the floor. Interestingly, one of the main complaints is how long the waiting time is, suggesting demand is high.

Less than R150,000: Option 6 — medium-sized solar

Installing a system with a 5kW inverter, one or two 5.1kWh batteries and up to five solar panels will get you through any rolling blackouts and make you virtually independent of the grid on sunny days.

You can use one oven, stove, borehole or pool pump at any one time but usually not two or more of these devices together unless you pay an extra R15,000 for an 8kW inverter. You will probably be able to sell some power back to the grid from mid-2023 on sunny days, depending on where you live.

This is an excellent option if you can afford it.

Less than R200,000: Option 7 — the full monty

If your household uses less than 700kWh per month you can probably be virtually grid-free, at least in the sunny months, by getting the following system installed: an 8kW inverter, two 5.1kWh batteries and eight to twelve 545W solar panels. (You may go a bit over R200,000 if you have eleven or twelve solar panels.)

With this, you can run any standard household, usually without giving a second thought to which appliances are on: you might even be able to use the borehole pump, the oven and the stove all at the same time. But you may need a little bit of grid power if there are several consecutive heavily overcast days.

If you don’t have a pool pump or borehole pump, you do have a solar geyser, and you use a gas oven, you can save about R15,000 with a 5kW inverter instead of an 8kW one.

With this option, you’ll be able to sell a lot of power to the grid on sunny days. Apparently, this will be allowed, at least in Cape Town, from mid-2023.

To sell to the grid you’ll also need a bidirectional metre. These are currently just shy of R11,000, but the prices are expected to come down soon.

An argument can be made that if you can implement this option then you should. It will help alleviate the pressure on the grid.

Apartment blocks

Apartments are one of the most sustainable ways to live. But rolling blackout solutions for apartment blocks can be especially tricky. Often there isn’t much roof space for solar panels. Also, the residents will usually have to negotiate a use agreement with each other. If your apartment block has solved the rolling blackout problem, we are very keen to hear from you.

What about informal settlements and RDP houses?

An important achievement of the post-apartheid government has been to provide electricity to millions of people living in informal settlements and RDP houses. This achievement is being undone by the deterioration of Eskom. No option we’ve listed above is feasible for the vast majority of people living in such housing.

We are interested in hearing from organisations and residents that are experimenting with providing non-grid power to informal settlements, or solving rolling blackouts for RDP neighbourhoods. DM

First published by GroundUp.

Absa OBP

Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Brendon Bussy says:

    Our current solution is: gas stove and gas geyser plus a 1kw inverter. Inverter plus lithium batteries cost was R15000. We’re only a two person household and we don’t mind cold showers and cooking economically (we use a wonder bag for half the cooking time), so it’s working for us. The inverter has solar input, so we’ll get a panel soon. Hopefully this will keep us going until solar drops enough in price.

  • Johan Buys says:

    This article is aimed at residential, which uses little in the day and a lot at night. Given that many people will for variety of reasons not receive their dues for exports, you need to split your system. Also a single phase home is legally limited to 3.6kW solar and that would give you on average 4500kWh per year only.

    Split system: So, grid connection sees only a battery charger that you aim to control. Charger sees battery. Battery is your perfect isolation from the rules. So you can put up whatever size solar you need or can on your side of the battery along with a hybrid inverter and then you control that grid-side charger to only run when lithium battery is low – say 30%.

    Expect a tariff response from councils – they will hike availability fees and limit kWh increases. Then you cut the connection size on that grid-side battery charger to as small as you can = a 20A single phase.

    • Alastair Stalker says:

      I have a set up like this but with older conventional batteries. i will go Lithium when I have to replace them.A solar geyser is a must and it pays for itself very quickly. Also, in Johannesburg, you have to be on a pre-paid meter. I agree the tariffs will increase but they have to be kept relatively low as this is how most lower income families purchase power.

    • Bernhard Scheffler says:

      “a single phase home is legally limited to 3.6kW solar”. Really??? By which law or regulation??

      I am seriously considering an attractive quote for a 5.5 kW solar system, with 5 kW inverter and 5.1 kWh LiPO4 battery at our single phase home, which already has a 200 litre SWH providing more than adequate water heating for about 350 days per year.

  • Bob Pilditch says:

    Thanks for this cheat sheet, however for our household the fridge & freezer are the key appliances compared to say pool or borehole pumps (and geyser with an eye to saving on power)

  • Micheal Goodman says:

    Thanks for a useful guide. It would be great to see the sources of information too please.

  • Timothy Van Blerck says:

    For the mid and higher range outlays it makes more sense to add PV panels to power your geyser during the day (with a smart controller) rather than a conventional solar geyser. Using PV panels give you more flexibility as you can choose to send the power to essential or non essential loads. Lastly use energy efficient appliances – convert all lighting is converted to LED bulbs, replace conventual heaters with inverter A/C and use gas for cooking

  • Daniel Sapsford Sapsford says:

    As a very bare minimum providing light during blackouts (or in informal housing with no access to electricity) can be achieved sustainably (no recharging from the grid) for close to R 1000. 3W 12V LED bulb & fitting – R40, 20W solar panel + 5A charge controller – R 500, 12 Ah battery – R 550. If battery capacity is increased and/or battery re-charged daily multiple 3W lights can be used – they only draw – 0.3 Amp and provide a surprising amount of light.

  • Please provide a review of solar system providers and how to assess what one’s getting for the costs. This is the critical consumer issue of the day.

  • Steven D says:

    Why the hate for generators? I have a petrol-powered one so my comment isn’t applicable to all generators (including diesel ones) but many of the principles are exactly the same.

    To debunk the unnecessary fear-mongering above, it certainly doesn’t guzzle fuel if properly maintained and not overfed. Provided you practise fairly simple safety precautions, they are not as dangerous as claimed. They are easily available, relatively cheap (most cost less than R12,000) and provide electricity instantly. It’s not a hassle to keep them filled up; just buy a big enough jerry can, maybe two so that you have a back-up supply. Their exhausts can be silenced and I’ve never had any neighbours complain about the noise – because they also have generators.

    Renting a solar system, the output of which is entirely dependent on the availability of the sun (which isn’t all that available in Joburg this week…) and the health of expensive batteries, which are effectively wear items and also need to be replaced, costs twice at least twice as much per month than the cost of the fuel as calculated in the article.

    For immediate independence from Eskom while you save for an affordable and durable solar system, a petrol generator is certainly the way forward.

  • Peter Holmes says:

    Plenty of sound advice in the article, and some constructive comments. Speaking from experience, the problem in the Cape Peninsula is the (at times) almost complete lack of sunshine (sometimes for two or three consectutive winter days). You can have as much solar/Li battery capacity as is reasonably possible in an urban home, but you will still be grid-dependent at critical times.

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