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SEEING THE LIGHT

Alexandra residents rejoice as informal settlement finally gets power supply through microgrid project

Alexandra residents rejoice as informal settlement finally gets power supply through microgrid project
Residents of Amarasta informal settlement, who have never had formal electricity connection, celebrating at the launch of the Amarasta micro-grid electrification project in Alexandra, Johannesburg. (Photo: Julia Evans)

For the first time, 500 people in Amarasta informal settlement in Alexandra went home to formal electricity on Wednesday night, thanks to a first-of-its-kind solar and battery microgrid project.

“It might be for elections…but in reality they did something for us. It has a real impact,”  said Thulani Manzana, who has lived in Amarasta informal settlement in Alexandra for over two decades.

Manzana was speaking to Daily Maverick as celebrations began in Amarasta on Wednesday night, 20 March, following the launch of the first microgrid in Gauteng, that was switched on Wednesday evening, giving power to 200 households, and 500 people, in Amarasta who had never had formal connection to electricity before.

“You are not going to solve illegal connections when people do not have access to electricity,” said Tshifularo Mashava, CEO of City Power, a City of Joburg entity.

Panyaza Lesufi, Kabelo Gwamanda

Joburg Mayor Kabelo Gwamanda (right) and Gauteng Premier Panyaza Lesufi cutting the ribbon at the launch of the Amarasta microgrid electrification project in Alexandra, Johannesburg. (Photo: Julia Evans)

The Amarasta microgrid electrification project is a collaboration between City Power, the implementing agents of the Gauteng  Energy Response Plan, and the Gauteng provincial government, who put down funding to install 1 megawatt of solar PV panels and 2 megawatt hours of battery storage.

The cost of R60-million also includes security features, the boundary walls, paving the dirt road to prevent dust from affecting the efficiency of the system and the electrification of the households (lights, poles, streetlights, cables), and smart meters.

Amarasta, microgrid

The microgrid will make use of 1 megawatt Solar PV System and a 2 megawatt hour battery energy storage solution, serving 200 households and 500 people, in Amarasta informal settlement, Alexandra. (Photo: Julia Evans)

“What the province has done for us is assist us not to overthink,” said Mashava, explaining that sometimes in government too much time gets spent on planning for feasibility and not implementing.

“This was definitely just a directive on the fifth of December from the Premier. And here we are today.”

Speaking to beneficiaries at Altrec Stadium in Alexandra, Gauteng Premier Panyaza Lesufi, said that when the provincial government (whose mandate is not typically to deal with electricity security) started 20 months ago, “there were 2.5-million people who didn’t have access to electricity. Not because of load shedding, but because transformers were stolen, vandalised, the entire electricity network was not there,” — which is why this project is so important.

“In this country, if you don’t do anything, you get insulted; if you do something, you get insulted,” said Lesufi. “So I’m doing something.”

This is a first-of-its-kind project for an informal settlement in Johannesburg. City Power explained that Eskom has piloted microgrid projects before, but never run it as a mainstream section.

Amarasta microgrid

The physical barriers surrounding the Amarasta microgrid electrification project in Alexandra, Johannesburg. (Photo: Julia Evans)

Standing next to the solar panels in Amarasta, Mashava told Daily Maverick, “It’s the first time that as a government, we say, it’s actually an option, and it’s actually a solution for informal settlements”.

The solar panels have dual technology — getting energy from the sun on top, as well as radiation from the heat from the ground underneath. The plan is for the solar panels to feed firstly to the houses.

City Power said that the settlement will not be affected by rolling blackouts and, over and above this, the microgrid will also feed surplus energy back into the City Power grid, therefore resulting in a reduction in bulk purchases and further reducing demand on their constrained grid.

Because the microgrid is linked to the main grid, if need be, the main grid can be used as a backup should there not be enough sun — but Anza Mudau, general manager of grid reliability and expansion at City Power, said that there is more than enough built capacity, so that shouldn’t happen often.

microgrid

The microgrid will make use of 1 megawatt Solar PV System and a 2 megawatt hour battery energy storage solution. (Photo: Julia Evans)

Amarasta

The reason they chose Amarasta informal settlement for this pilot project is because this community has never had electrical infrastructure before, or legal connection to the grid.

Despite the basic need for electricity, this community has faced violent rifts and conflict between neighbouring communities in Alexandra over illegal connections, which also overwhelm the infrastructure, costing City Power millions every winter.

“We’re going into winter — all those houses would have no electricity because you’d have illegal connections to a mini substation down the road,” said Mashava pointing to the rest of Alexandra township.

Mashava said in just one year, City Power had to replace mini-substations seven times, which cost them R500,000 every single time.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Alex protesters prevent officials from cutting off illegal electricity connections

“I think energy quality and energy access is what we must do as a country,” said Mashava, but added that we are not going to solve the war against illegal connections when people do not have access to electricity.

One of the priorities for Gauteng’s 5 point Energy Crisis Plan was the war against illegal connections and replacing substations, which links to City Power’s 10 point plan to reduce their reliance on Eskom.

Read more in Daily Maverick: ‘Drastic measures’ needed to avoid power network collapse in Joburg, says City Power chairman

Mashava said that along with guaranteeing access to electricity, with formal connections, they must provide access to free basic electricity.

Gauteng Premier Panyaza Lesufi (centre) and City Power CEO Tshifularo Mashava (right) at the launch of the Amarasta microgrid electrification project in Alexandra, Johannesburg. (Photo: Julia Evans)

The National Treasury provides a free basic electricity grant of 50 kilowatt hours to households. “So at least there’s revenue that is coming to us. And then they’re also able to take care of the infrastructure,” said Mashava.

Unfortunately for now, Mashava said, an informal settlement household would pay the same tariff as a 10-bedroom household in Bryanston, which is not affordable for most people.

“So we are going to ensure that this is affordable — between the grant and also whatever tariff that we put in,” said Mashava, explaining that Integrated Development Programme engagement in April, they will work to get approval from councillors and then the National Energy Regulator of South Africa (Nersa) to make the tariffs more affordable.

Mashava said that this project is just the start. With over 200 informal settlements across the city, they have a “backlog of electrification” to get through, and are planning to replicate this project in as many communities as funding will allow

Panyaza Lesufi

Gauteng Premier Panyaza Lesufi addressing beneficiaries of the Amarasta microgrid electrification project, at Altrec Stadium, Alexandra, Johannesburg, 20 March 2024. (Photo: Julia Evans)

What do residents think?

Amarasta residents are partnering with City Power to secure the infrastructure, and there was a sense of jubilation and joy on Wednesday night as 200 households got light.

“But there’s an outcry because there’s some sections that aren’t serviced,” noted Mashava.

“It is exciting, but at the same time, when my neighbour doesn’t have electricity, then what?” said a member of the Amarasta community who wished to remain anonymous.

Thulani Manzana, who has lived in Amarasta informal settlement without electricity for over 20 years said his community is so happy.

Microgrid residents

Residents of the Amarasta Informal Settlement in Alexandra who are beneficiaries of the microgrid electrification project celebrating during Gauteng Premier Panyaza Lesufi address at Altrec Stadium, Alexandra, Johannesburg on 20 March 2024. (Photo: Julia Evans)

“We’ve been waiting for this moment for long,” said Manzana. “Thanks to our councillor, he fought the battle for us.”

He added that the neighbouring communities who have formal connections (and were compromised by illegal connections and subsequent violence) are also happy, “they’re here celebrating with us,” he said.

“So I think things will be covered now, it’s going to be better.” DM

microgrid residents

Residents of the Amarasta Informal Settlement in Alexandra who are beneficiaries of the microgrid electrification project at Altrec Stadium, Alexandra, Johannesburg on 20 March 2024. (Photo: Julia Evans)

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • John P says:

    Surprise, just in time for the elections

  • ST ST says:

    Mixed thoughts and feelings:

    Alex is one of the oldest refuge for black folk, when does it lose its ‘informal settlement’ status?

    These folks, still living in shacks after all these years, some who’ve produced graduates studying at candlelight and sustaining on one meal a day! Happy for you. But you deserve much more. The paradox of having electricity in a shack!

    It’s like you employed someone, every 5 years they spectacularly fail to deliver, every performance review (elections), they come hypnotise and confuse you with shiny trinkets so you give them another five years…

  • Johan Buys says:

    Smartgrids will become pervasive.

    Interesting that in a place where space is very scarce, they didn’t rather put up a community hall / creche / whatever and mount panels on new roof.

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