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Solar power brings horsepower to energy-starved Wild Coast community’s eco-tourism drive

Solar power brings horsepower to energy-starved Wild Coast community’s eco-tourism drive
Bulungula’s electric shuttle powered by solar is proof that electric vehicles and solar can beat rolling blackouts and the troubles of a compromised national electricity grid. (Photo: Jeremy Briggs)

An electric vehicle powered by the sun? It’s not a mirage, but a reality as a Wild Coast eco-lodge proves that electric vehicles are the way to go even in a time of Eskom crisis. 

Electricity came late to the remote villages in the Wild Coast area — late being just this past summer, 2023. 

For the longest time, people living in these inaccessible parts of the Eastern Cape have had to make do without electricity fed from the national Eskom grid. This even as universal access to affordable, reliable and sustainable energy services is a United Nations (UN) Sustainable Development Goal. 

The UN SDG report of July 2022 showed that in 2020 around 77% of the global population who live without electricity are people in sub-Saharan Africa and the majority are people who live in rural areas. The report also warned that “If current trends (of slow progress) continue, only 92% of the world’s population will have access to electricity in 2030, leaving 670 million people unserved.”

For the people of the village of Nqileni, a community established along the trace of the Wild Coast shoreline, fuel sources have always been wood fires and gas. A government programme introduced about eight years ago aimed to install a micro solar panel attached to a small battery at each homestead. But the system was only adequate to charge a few lights and a cell phone or radio. Over time the lack of capacity for maintenance of these systems gradually rendered the panels inefficient or simply non-functioning.

But being off the grid has also had some unexpected advantages for the community. While many parts of the country, experienced up to 10 hours of rolling blackouts as the norm by mid-autumn this year, these rural communities did not experience this as any new disruption.  

They’ve always had to find their own energy solutions and as such have become inadvertent pioneers in how to live off the grid and how to adapt to more sustainable ways of living.

Greener, cleaner technology

For the Bulungula Eco-Lodge that was established in the village by Dave Martin in 2004, the use of solar and gas as well as the likes of composting toilets and rainwater harvesting has made the community-led enterprise a gem in eco-tourism. 

“Back then the Eskom grid stopped at about 30 to 40 kilometres away from us, which meant it was highly unlikely it would ever reach the lodge. Solar was damn expensive too — 10 times more than it is now — but there was logic in going that route even then,” he says

Being off the grid by necessity has helped make Bulungula a stand-out eco destination locally and internationally. Since 2014 the lodge has been 100% community-owned even as Martin and wife Réjane Woodroffe continue to live in the community. They still work with the lodge and also on a range of projects for social impact and development in their community.

solar power in Eastern Cape

Off the grid living has been the norm for villages in the Eastern Cape but solar power has for the past 20-odd years already been a game changer. (Photo: Bulungula Eco-Lodge)

This July the Bulungula Eco-Lodge, which is about 100km from Mthatha, took another leap forward as pioneers in adopting another cleaner and greener technology. This time it’s in the form of switching to the use of an electric vehicle charged by solar energy as their shuttle to transport guests. 

Martin says the idea for the electric shuttle vehicle came about as the lodge looked for ways to revive eco-tourism in the community that is still at 80% below Covid-19 lockdowns. 

“Even though places like Cape Town have seen a return in tourism levels to pre-pandemic times it hasn’t been the case for Bulungula. We have always had a mix of local and international tourists but international tourists used to help keep a steady flow of guests during the off-peak tourism times in South Africa. 

“But now we’re finding that international travel has got more expensive so there are fewer people travelling and tourists are coming for shorter visits. As such they’re less likely to be exploring the country and coming to remote areas like Bulungula,” says Martin. 

The financial blows to the lodge represent direct income loss for at least 35 families in the village. For the first time since it was established, Bulungula had to apply for government funding. Martin says even as they started looking for funding schemes they were deliberate in motivating for financial support for a project that would have long-term cost-saving, be an asset to the community and live up to their ethos to keep bringing down their carbon footprint. 

Bulungula Eco-Lodge, electric car

The arrival of the new Mercedes EQB in the village of Nqileni was reason to celebrate for the community-owned eco-lodge that has for more than 20 years has proven a light footprint on the planet can be a way of life. (Photo: Bulungula Eco-Lodge)

Solar injection

Their proposal to the Independent Development Corporation (IDC) was for funding to buy a 7-seater electric 4×4 vehicle and a dedicated solar array to charge the car. Martin says the electric car charged by solar will save the lodge R100,000 a year in diesel bills. It’s what the previous shuttle vehicle racked up transporting guests to and from the airport and the nearest bus stop. 

The electric vehicle, the community believe, will be another practical move to lessen their carbon emissions and the vehicle will be a showcase that electric vehicles can indeed be charged via solar power and be realistically immune to the disruptions of rolling blackouts and a vulnerable Eskom grid. 

“Another big reason we proposed an electric vehicle and solar project was that we believe we need to help show that this kind of alternative transport and renewable energy must be the new norm at a national level.

“Car manufacturing is one of our biggest industries in the country that thousands of people rely on for livelihood. So we know that to stay competitive we will have to start producing, exporting and buying electric vehicles in South Africa. We have to keep the production volumes of electric cars high enough to keep this manufacturing sector from collapsing in the next decade. 

“We want Bulungula to show that it is possible to charge a car with power from the sun and hopefully it will encourage other motorists and businesses to start to think about electric vehicles and solar power charging for their fleets,” he says. 

The project hasn’t come cheap. The Bulungula vehicle is a Mercedes EQB with a 66kwh battery. The dedicated solar system for the vehicle is made up of a 15kw panel with a 30kwh battery. The total cost came in at just under R1.9-million with 85% of the funding by the IDC and subsidies from QDM Energy in Gqeberha who installed the solar system and trained local youth to maintain the system. 

Bulungula Eco-Lodge, electric car

Nokawuntile Debe was part of the celebrations to welcome the arrival of Bulungula’s new electric car that will be powered by solar. It will be used to shuttle tourists and represents a R100,000 a year saving on diesel bills. (Photo: Bulungula Eco-Lodge)

“We didn’t have much of a choice with the vehicle but the Mercedes EQB was the only 7-seater 4×4 that meets our needs for size and to handle our rural roads. It’s only the tenth vehicle of its kind to be imported to South Africa. But more cars like these are coming to the market. 

“Solar photo voltaic systems are also getting cheaper all the time and people are getting smarter about cutting energy wastage in their homes through things like more energy-efficient appliances. This means they have more realistic assessments of their energy needs and this means they can save on investing in smaller solar systems.  

“For our vehicle, it will take between four and five hours to charge fully and can do 400km on a single charge, which is enough for two trips to Mthatha. An electric vehicle will also have lower maintenance costs over time. This would be cheaper for an electric car for city trips,” he says.  

Getting going matters more in an age of climate crisis. And while green technology adoption usually starts at the top and trickles down, this time things are different. This time it’s a small eco-lodge, far away towards the ocean’s edge of the remote Wild Coast, that is proving that you can be tiny but you can still be part of the change. DM

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