How new methods of procuring solar electricity enable more access to affordable power

Intuitively, solar-generated electricity is cheap: the sun, after all, is a free resource, and compared to fossil-based energy such as coal and gas that require constant inputs, once installed, solar PV systems harness the sun’s energy for “free”, providing years of clean energy. So why has solar taken a while to become mainstream?

This is, in part, due to the costs of setting up a solar PV system. Because whilst the solar resource itself is free, there is still an initial cost of setting up the equipment which harnesses the sun. And while electricity grid tariffs are typically made up of ‘pay-as-you-go’ charges for monthly energy and power use, a solar PV electricity generator requires an upfront investment in equipment, which is then followed by minimal operational costs and zero fuel costs. This means that whilst the overall lifetime costs of solar PV are significantly lower than equivalent grid costs, the upfront investment has historically often exceeded the available capital of electricity consumers seeking alternatives.

However, this pattern is changing. For years, businesses with sensitive balance sheets that would not have cause to justify a large capex expenditure on an asset that doesn’t relate to their core business have struggled to justify the costs of a solar PV system – even if it would result in significant cost reductions over time. For this reason, new ways of procuring solar electricity have grown, and many businesses are now choosing to buy power from independent power producers (IPPs) who own and finance the solar assets on their behalf. 

Independent Power Producers (IPPs) gained some traction in the years of South Africa’s Renewable Energy Independent Power Producer Procurement Programme (REIPPP), which started in 2008 to see the first renewable energy integrated on to the main grid. Since 2008 a few trustworthy IPPs have stood the test of time and are able to provide Power Purchase Agreements (PPAs) that reliably smooth out the costs of a solar PV generator, making it more affordable and accessible to businesses. In addition, their owning of the solar PV asset removes the technical and operational risks that a business might face through ownership.

Several years ago, small-scale PPA agreements for typical businesses were inflexible and difficult to structure. As mentioned in the previous piece on how energy generation has changed, lower grid tariffs and higher solar equipment costs in the past reduced the financial benefit of solar for the end user. In addition to this, local solar companies were less experienced and technical risks were higher, increasing the costs of finance. Buying solar power from an IPP was akin to renting a house at above market rates, from a landlord who overpaid for the property and got an expensive bond from their bank.

But this has been fundamentally changed by the cost dynamics of the energy sector. Reputable IPPs now have the skills and experience to offer clean solar power at a substantial discount relative to the grid, even for commercial energy consumers. In addition to unlocking greater overall savings, the growing cost gap is enhancing the commercial flexibility of IPP services, and making solar electricity available to a wider pool of consumers. 
A typical PPA can now range from 5-20 years, with the most popular being somewhere around the 10 – 15 year mark. During that time, the offtaker (the company buying the power) and the IPP (the company providing the power), agree to pay for power and provide power, respectively, at an agreed tariff. It’s very similar to buying power from Eskom, except that the companies know upfront how much they’ll be spending on power – and how much that tariff will increase in the coming years. These solar procurement options enable customers with sensitive balance sheets to reduce costs immediately, without the risks of owning or running a solar PV system, and without the risks of unpredictable tariff increases over time.

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