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How Solar Power Systems Can Help Your Business?

Solar power systems are not only relevant to governments and large utilities looking to procure solar power, but to commercial and industrial businesses too. Currently, solar PV systems are the cheapest form of available power, and prices are continuing to drop. It is no wonder that businesses are keen to get on the solar trend. But how, specifically, can industrial businesses benefit from solar power systems? 

Solar power systems can assist businesses - ABInbev

Solar power systems reduce operating costs

The first and most obvious advantage of installing a solar power system is cost saving. Because solar is such an affordable form of electricity, it is an easy way to reduce operating costs dramatically, particularly for industrial businesses that have consistent loads or run 7 days a week. Two factors make solar PV a good investment for industrial businesses: they instantly reduce operating costs, and the great solar irradiance in South Africa means that they can produce a substantial amount of energy.

How much will a solar PV system save industrial businesses? This largely depends on the type of business, times of power use, and other factors that may influence the cost of the solar electricity generated. For an estimation of how much your business could save with a solar solution, get in touch with us for a free analysis of your electricity tariff. 

Solar Power Systems - Alrode Brewery in Alberton - industrial solar power system

Solar power systems can reduce diesel costs during load shedding and other power outages

Whilst most solar power systems are grid-tied, meaning that they do not operate during load shedding or other power outages, solar PV can greatly reduce the cost of diesel that might be required for backup power during an outage such as load shedding if this is taken into account whilst designing the system. 

Solar PV systems continue to generate power as long as it is light – and this applies to periods of load shedding during the day. However, solar inverters are designed to switch off during a grid outage, which serves as a safety mechanism for personnel that might be working on transmission lines during outages. However, this does not mean that large buildings with solar PV systems do not have options for load shedding. With careful engineering, It is possible to replicate a fake grid-tied scenario to “trick” the solar inverters into staying on. 

In order to retrofit a grid-tied solar system to operate during load shedding, two essential steps need to be taken. Firstly, the system needs to be isolated from the grid to prevent any exporting of power that could affect the safety of maintenance personnel. Secondly, a voltage forming source is required, in order to provide a reference voltage and frequency to the solar inverter. With these mechanisms in place, a solar PV system can continue to function seamlessly during load shedding, and thus reduce the costs of diesel and extend the life of on-site generators greatly. 

When does it make sense to go entirely off grid? If your business has a weak grid connection and thus has inadequate kVA supply, or it uses diesel roughly 20% of the time, it might be worthwhile to look at the cost-benefits of installing a solar PV microgrid with batteries. 

Solar power systems reduce carbon emissions

It goes without saying, but supplementing your business’s electricity supply with solar power is a great way to cut down on carbon emissions. In South Africa, the Carbon Tax was gazetted on 1 June 2019 – meaning that companies will have to take their carbon emissions into account when filing for their tax returns. According to the South African Revenue Service (SARS), the first phase of the carbon tax is R120 per ton of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions, which will increase annually by inflation plus 2% until 2022. 

There is a minimum threshold for emissions allowances in order to allow for businesses to transition to cleaner energy and invest in energy efficiency projects, but in general the carbon tax is here to stay – and if avoided, could save the business from tax expenses. 

In addition many large companies are heeding their stakeholders’ requests to be more responsible in the way that they do business. Global support of sustainable business practices have increased dramatically over the last few years, particularly in the manufacturing sector. In response to global consumer trends, a group of multinational corporations established the RE100 as a commitment  to going 100% renewable energy. One signatory of the RE100 is AB InBev, who recently entered into a multi-tiered Power Purchase Agreement with SOLA to supply their South African Breweries with 8.7 MW solar power systems. For them, the commitment to renewable energy is a no brainer – both in terms of cost savings and their sustainability commitments. 

Solar Power Systems - AB Inbev

By giving you a better overview, solar power systems can increase operational efficiency

Solar power systems are not only a way to reduce operational costs and lower carbon emissions, but they also provide an opportunity for businesses to evaluate and improve on their energy consumption habits. In order to correctly size a solar PV system, it is important to examine the load of the building, and with this will come insights into your energy consumption patterns. Is it possible to run some of the plant during the day when solar PV is at its cheapest? Are there additional energy efficiency measures that could assist with bringing your load during peak hours down? By encouraging a monthly overview of a business’s energy consumption, solar power systems can help to further energy savings even more. 

Solar power carport systems can provide cool, protected parking

Whilst many businesses in South Africa have ample roof space for housing solar power systems, solar power systems are perfect additions to parking lots and convert them into shady, protected carports. Solar carports are very similar to ground-mounted solar systems, but they have the added advantage of not requiring any additional land if a parking lot exists. What is more, because of global demand, these systems are becoming increasingly affordable. The solar carport at Old Mutual head office is an example of how a solar power systems can utilise existing space to create savings for businesses. 

Removal of Power Constraints Crucial for Post COVID-19 Recovery

This article originally appeared in the Daily Maverick Opinion Section.

It is difficult to understand why the main limitations to private power generation have not been removed, despite repeated pledges from government to that effect. There is a real danger that while grappling with the immediate crisis, policymakers will shelve the issue indefinitely.

Demand for electricity has plunged with the onset of South Africa’s COVID-19 lockdown, removing the threat of load shedding for its three-week duration. It could be several months before the economy is up and running normally again, but it would be a big mistake to forget the power constraints which plagued SA in the weeks before the pandemic struck.

When Moody’s downgraded SA on 27 March, it pointed out that unreliable electricity supply and its impact on the economy was one of the main reasons for the decision. The ratings agency also pointed out that a strategy to stabilise electricity production in the country has failed to materialise and that as a result, economic growth would remain low for years. Returning to a constrained electricity supply without an adequate government response is the last thing embattled businesses need after COVID-19. 

Against this background, it is difficult to understand why the main limitations to private power generation have not been removed, despite repeated pledges from government to that effect. There is a real danger that while grappling with the immediate crisis, policymakers will shelve the issue indefinitely. In addition, the National Energy Regulator (NERSA) has inexplicably halted all new licensing applications for the duration of the lockdown period. 

For connected projects larger than 1MW — which applies to most of the pent-up demand for corporate generation of electricity — a license is still required from NERSA even if the installation is for a customer’s own use, or established through a bilateral agreement involving only a customer and an independent power producer.

These onerous license application processes were intended for large, utility style power stations, hundreds of MWs in size, and each requires a public participation process with hearings. They have requirements which make the development of smaller project impractical. The official time for NERSA to issue these licenses is 120 days but in practice it takes far longer — with some cases so far taking as long as two years.

NERSA is theoretically able to process license applications, but in practice is inadequately resourced to handle the quantity of smaller applications that are now being made. This regulatory blockage is holding up the roll out of hundreds of MWs of electricity generation, which would be the fastest way to alleviate the power constraints which lead to load shedding. 

This point has been repeatedly made by independent bodies like the Minerals Council of SA, Business Unity SA, the South African Photovoltaic Industry Association, and the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research. It has been recognised by Minerals and Energy Minister Gwede Mantashe, who indicated at the mining Indaba in March 2020 that self-generation of any size would not require licensing. 

Companies in the private sector were hopeful that their pleas for the 1MW cap on licensing for their own electricity generation would be lifted to 10MW, which would include most of the projects they want to implement. And yet, when the eagerly awaited Schedule 2 of the Electricity Regulation Act was published on 26 March, the 1MW threshold for grid-connected facilities exempt from licensing was maintained. 

The shape of the national load profile – when and how much electricity is used – is important to Government because it affects which mix of electricity is most cost effective. Its preferable to have a load profile that allows for the maximum usage of the cheapest resources available to the country. From this angle, the control over who builds what generation is understandable, but even with this argument considered, the amount of solar power in South Africa still represents under 5% of installed capacity, and less than 2% of the consumed energy.

A 10MW solar generator represents 0.006% of annual electricity demand and 150 of such projects would need to be installed to reach 1% of the total demand. Lifting the license exemption threshold to 10MW will initially have negligible effect on the demand profile but a huge effect on lifting red tape in the way of more energy coming onstream and supporting small to medium size businesses. It is always possible for the state to monitor the uptake and lower the threshold for licences at a later stage if necessary.

As the chairperson of a solar PV company, the SOLA Group, I have seen many clients desperate to install larger solar plants than the 1 MVA limit to alleviate their electricity constraints and lower their costs. These projects are practically ready to be rolled out – and could be built within 8-12 months – if the licensing hurdle is removed. 

From my extensive experience in the solar PV industry in South Africa I estimate that, without such restrictions, solar PV companies could build 500 MWs within the next 12 – 18 months. The wasted opportunity due to these arbitrary licence requirements is obvious and destructive.

For the sake of saving businesses and creating jobs post COVID-19, I urge government to:

  • Lift the threshold on requirement for a generation license from 1MW to 10MW until the embedded generation allocation in SA’s new Integrated Resource Plan has been reached.
  • Require that these projects are registered with NERSA upon their commercial operation date through submission of an independent certificate of compliance against which the allocation to embedded generation can be measured, and keep the database of installed MWs public and updated.
  • Ensure that NERSA is provided with, or creates, clear guidelines as to the technical standards that must be met to obtain a generation license for generation projects above 10MW in size.
  • Provide NERSA with the resources, both through budget and staff, to evaluate the applications in a meaningful, prompt and scientific way.
  • Return to processing and receiving licence applications during the lockdown.

The business case for installing embedded power generation remains for the private sector, and the economy will once again start moving when the impact of the pandemic subsides. It would be tragic if its potential to recover is thwarted by continued electricity shortages. 

Solar and wind energy could set South Africa on track for the world’s cheapest electricity

This article originally appeared in the Daily Maverick Opinion Section.

It’s a no-brainer — a move to renewable energy will not only boost the economy and create jobs, it is also the path to providing South Africa with potentially the cheapest electricity in the world given our natural wind and solar resources.

Energy was never this difficult. Energy came from coal in the ground, burnt somewhere, put in a turbine, wires were connected, and cheap energy flowed for many years. However, this was never going to last long, because the amount of coal that forms in a year was being burnt in a minute. The world has now realised that this is unsustainable behaviour, and we’re faced with a set of future alternatives: hydro, nuclear, wind, solar, biomass, coal — each with a sidecar of complexity, and we need to make some decisions.

Ten years ago, the general public didn’t know what a kilowatt-hour (kWh) was, what it cost, where it came from; they didn’t know how many litres of water were spent in a flush or shower, how many dams we had or how many megalitres we use per day.

That’s changed. We’re more knowledgeable now. Why? Because we’ve felt the effects. Electricity is expensive and we’ve even run out of it (many times). We’ve been on water restrictions for years, and Cape Town came close to being the first major city in the world to run out. Authorities are having to find alternative methods to abstract water, domestically and regionally. Unemployment is a major contributor to poverty and addiction, and we witness frequent protests against injustice.

Knowledge, however, can help us to solve problems. If the problem at hand is to solve the electricity crisis, we need deep understanding to find the least cost kWh and invest in the technologies that will deliver that. The “least cost” does not only refer to the financial cost, but also the environmental and social cost. The industry has been poor at recognising the entrenchment of communities reliant on the electricity sector and ensuring that reform is done fairly.

In the long wait for the IRP 2019 to be gazetted, many people have missed a recent study published in the international journal, ScienceDirect, which took a bold step forward in modelling a best electricity policy scenario based on cost, water and employment. The strength of this peer-reviewed article is that it is founded on solid scientific data. And while a cold approach to kWhs might not reflect every sensitivity in our country, the study did pay attention to the largest social item on our agenda: jobs.

The paper, titled Pathway towards achieving 100% renewable electricity by 2050 for South Africa, modelled the costs of renewable and non-renewable electricity generation pathways in South Africa, taking into consideration South Africa’s current energy requirements, the expected population growth, and costs of electricity. The paper highlighted the possible scenarios for South Africa’s electricity future — whether we stay on the Current Policy Scenario, highly reliant on coal — or go aggressively into renewable energy (what the authors term the “Best Policy Scenario”).

Their suggested “Best Policy Scenario” (BPS) includes 71% of overall electricity production coming from solar PV and 22% by wind by 2050. In addition to this, storage technologies, transmission grids and gas power plants would be utilised to provide the elements of consistency for a stable electricity supply.

The BPS is 25% cheaper than the current policy scenario, and this doesn’t take into account the additional benefits of electricity being virtually 100% renewable, such as the reduction in the detrimental effects of carbon and other poisonous gases in Earth’s atmosphere, the distributed nature of the employment, and the lower risk in the technologies.

If you put a cost saving to these benefits, particularly the greenhouse gas emissions, then the 100% renewables case becomes more than 50% cheaper than the Current Policy Scenario.

In addition, the cost reductions in Levelised Cost of Electricity (LCOE) are not the only benefit of this pathway. In addition to their findings on LCOE, the authors assert that the low-carbon pathway will also decrease water consumption by 87% by 2030, and by 99% by 2050, compared to the baseline — which would remain in the Current Policy Scenario.

From an employment perspective, the renewables-rich BPS will grow the jobs created by the energy sector dramatically, almost doubling to 408,000 by 2035 and tapering off to 278,000 by 2050 as construction jobs stabilise. In the Current Policy Scenario, fewer jobs are created, never rising higher than the 200,000 mark, and decreasing to 184,000 jobs in 2050.

What about coal and nuclear?

The arguments to retain a coal-heavy electricity supply are becoming thinner, particularly given the overwhelming evidence toward coal’s contribution to greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change and the fact that South Africa is one of the world’s worst emitters of CO2, clocking in just behind huge economies like China and the US.

The authors assert that coal and nuclear should be phased out in the BPS, adding that new investments in coal and nuclear could be at risk of becoming stranded assets as more banks tend to opt out of investing in non-renewable technologies.

On nuclear energy, the authors assert that, “results for the fully renewable end-point scenarios indicate that there is no need for high cost and high-risk nuclear energy in the future South African electricity mix”.

From the study, it is clear that South Africa has an important policy decision to make: one that will steer its future toward low-cost, low-carbon electricity that will create jobs and reduce freshwater consumption. It is an option that would be to the benefit of all South Africans — and the world at large.

The “side” benefit is that in this scenario, due to our significant wind and solar resources, we’d probably have the cheapest electricity in the world, adding a strong element of competitiveness to our economy, which we’re also trying to grow. Now more than ever, we need to do the right thing. It’s clear as day.