So, for the past 12 years, when my colleagues complain about load shedding, I remain very quiet. One doesn’t want to rub someone’s poor choice in their face. We have our own private load shedding when it is overcast for three days running, but if that happens once a year, it’s a lot. Despite spending packets on batteries and solar panels, I calculate I’ve saved about R500,000 in total over the past decade and a bit.
Having felt how this actually works, and how successful it’s all been, your brain kinda goes wild. My first thought was whether it would be financially viable to take my nearest town, Prince Albert, off the grid. How much would it cost? How long would it take? Would it be worth it? This could be a fantastic new role for local governments.
As it happens, there was a point when the public enterprises minister wanted to promote small-scale solar projects, so it seemed the planets were aligning.
Despite the help of some wonderful lawyers who went through the small mountain of documentation pro bono, we eventually gave up – even though the finances of the process are ridiculously good.
So, here are some numbers and calculations on what it would take to get a small town in a sunny area off the grid. Just one warning: these numbers can change dramatically, and they really are back-of-the-cigarette-box numbers, but they do illustrate the point.
Prince Albert pays Eskom about R16-million a year for wholesale electricity, which it then distributes to its 15,000-odd residents. It’s a roughly breakeven service. Every “indigent” user gets 50kWh free a month, and the municipality just gives that to every single household in the township.
How much is that? Not enough, but not too bad. My wife and I use about 125kWh per month each, and we have fridges, freezers, computers and water pumps all going. This is where the maths gets a bit tricky. Eskom’s average cost to its wholesale buyer is about 1.33c/kWh, so it’s supplying each household about 250kWh of electricity per month.
So, how much would it cost to replace this expenditure with solar?
To replicate that, Prince Albert would need about 60,000 panels. Throw in installation and electronics, and total expenditure would be about R80-million. Assuming that this saves the city about a third of its electricity bill, and it saves about a third of its cost to Eskom, it would take about 14 years to pay off the installation.
That is assuming the electricity price does not increase over the next 14 years, and trust me, it will. My guess is that it would take Prince Albert about eight years, conservatively, to pay for the installation.
What if you included in that number the cost of a storage dimension, so the town would be completely off the grid? Sadly, this just doesn’t work. The town would need about 13,000 battery packs and that would cost roughly R900-million. It would take more than 50 years to pay off.
Still, this is all worth watching. There was a time when solar panels cost R6,000 each; they now cost R1,600 like for like. But the expense of storage demonstrates why the mines are not building a storage systems, and they will use Eskom most of the time.
But there is bad news here too. Despite the existence of legislation designed to help municipalities get involved, the actual process is just gob-smacking difficult. You need an accredited adviser, an official auditor, sign-offs from a gazillion organisations and a BEE partner. Almost everything you buy has to be made locally, and the legal papers are book-length.
Yet, as we can see, in principle the project is totally viable. Go figure. DM168
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.