Jul 2019

Solar Microgrids and Battery Storage

Achieving electricity cost reductions through energy storage

Achieving electricity cost reductions through energy storage: what Business needs to know

Energy storage represents the major opportunity for the electricity sector, as affordable energy storage promises to solve the intermittency issues that occur with cheap renewable power such as solar PV and wind energy. Over the past few years, rapid declines in the cost of energy storage technologies, such as lithium-ion batteries, have made the topic of energy storage enter mainstream conversations. However, does energy storage as it currently stands translate into cost savings for business? 

From electric vehicles to large-scale utility batteries: the global market context

The popularity of electric vehicle (EV) technology in many ways has facilitated rapid growth in the energy storage services market, driving down the costs of Lithium-ion batteries and associated technology. Daniel Goldstuck, head of Energy Storage and Microgrid Services at SOLA, believes that the progression of storage products and services can be clearly seen in the increasing presence of battery suppliers and other industry service providers at conferences, who tout their ability to provide reliable, high-tech solutions to intermittency battles. In addition, the mushrooming of utility-scale battery programmes globally indicates that interest in energy storage is entering the large-scale energy services market, leading potential clients to see energy storage as a potential solution to some of their needs. “The procurement of large-scale transmission assets ‘in front of the meter’ shows that utilities are starting to use energy storage to provide a number of services, including frequency response, renewables smoothing, and transmission deferral,” Goldstuck asserts. 

The uptake of such solutions is expanding globally. California, for example, has over 1 GW of storage solutions installed, and the state also provides rebates for residential storage systems. In Africa, Microgrids that combine energy-storage technology with clean energy generation are lauded for their ability to provide stable power to communities with weak or no grid access. Pico-grids, or home solar kits, are also increasingly seen as ways to assist rural homesteads and villages with electricity provision. 

However, the application of microgrids and energy storage solutions do not only apply to rural and utility scale efforts, but also to the large segment of commercial and industrial energy consumers in between. Rurally-located mining operations, for example, can benefit from energy storage applications that link to cheap and reliable renewables, moving operations to electricity that is less cost- and carbon- intensive than diesel.

storage and solar PV: a perfect match

Solar PV is the cheapest form of energy in most countries globally. This is because it is solar power is an abundant renewable resource, the technology to harness it is relatively cheap to install, and it lasts for 20-plus years. However, solar PV is most abundant in the middle of the day, and starts to wane during “peak” energy hours such as early morning and evening. When combined with energy storage, the abundant, cheap electricity generated by the sun during midday can be stored and deployed during these peak usage times. Because storage is also programmable, it can be deployed when most needed – preventing wastage and increasing the economic value of each kWh stored. 

However, this programmable aspect of microgrids also make them more expensive than the typical grid-tied solar PV facility. “Solar PV and storage microgrids need to function seamlessly, so that power is not interrupted, and battery life needs to be managed carefully in order to ensure their longevity. This takes quite specific and extensive engineering to get right,” Goldstuck adds. 

Issues such as cycling the battery every day can affect the warranty of the product, depending on the type of battery and warranty arrangement. Energy throughput of the battery has the largest impact on the life of the battery, and therefore the warranty. Unlike solar modules that have a 25 year lifespan and relatively low operations and maintenance requirements, batteries need to be very carefully sized and configured, taking into account things like days with low-irradiance or cloud cover, where batteries may be put under pressure.

Although renewables and energy storage solutions are a perfect combination in a world headed towards increased renewables, the above factors mean that at the moment, the combination of solar PV and batteries into microgrids is more costly than straight grid-tied solar PV.

When does storage make sense economically?

However, the business case for storage and microgrid solutions is very clear for certain business sectors. “Rurally located agro-processing units such as medicinal cannabis farms are particularly well-positioned to make use of renewable energy storage microgrids,” contends Goldstuck. “They require consistent, large amounts of reliable electricity in order to power greenhouses and other farming equipment – yet are often situated on constrained grid networks and may rely heavily on diesel to run effectively,” he adds.

Diesel is expensive, both monetarily and environmentally, and yet diesel generators are widely used to power remote facilities. Diesel generators have even been used in South Africa to maintain the grid supply whilst there was constraint to major power stations. And despite energy storage solutions still being pricier than solar PV, diesel is still more expensive than the combination of both. Given that diesel is so expensive, the business case for implementing a clean-energy microgrid is particularly good  in relation to diesel saved.  

In contrast, storage for grid-tied facilities seeking a tariff-optimization solution generally requires closer analysis to determine the business case. “In South Africa, only a few tariff structures are currently at the price point to justify adding a storage asset. This is rapidly changing as the cost of storage decreases, and the costs of centralised electricity supply increases,” adds Goldstuck.

Energy storage economics cheat sheet

As a rule of thumb, energy storage microgrid solutions will make economic sense if they prevent at least 30% of the facility’s current or proposed diesel usage. Such cases are typically:

  1. Facilities on a weak or constrained grid network that need additional power to function
  2. Facilities without electricity grid access
  3. Facilities requiring consistent power that the grid is not able to provide for at least 30% of the time. 

Based on the above criteria, the following industries lend themselves particularly well to solar PV and energy storage microgrids:

  1. Islands without electricity grid access, or where the grid itself is powered by diesel (such as Robben Island)
  2. Game lodges or hotels that do not have access to the grid
  3. Large developments in rural settings that require more power than the grid can provide (such as the Cedar Mill Mall development)
  4. Mining operations situated remotely
  5. Farms that have extensive greenhousing requirements such as Medicinal Cannabis facilities 
  6. On-grid buildings experiencing outages for more than 30% of the time.

In conclusion, Goldstuck admits that there is a long way to go before large-scale energy storage solutions can be broadly implemented. However, he remains optimistic. “We’re just scratching the surface of what’s possible in terms of storing the abundant renewable resources we have available. In the years to come, energy storage solutions will become widespread options for commercial and industrial facilities”.

Solar Microgrids and Battery Storage


FMCG industrial manufacturing has great potential for Africa

Solar for the FMCG Sector: Clean Energy Solutions that Work

FMCG players

FMCG is one of the largest drivers of the industrial sector in Africa, presenting a wealth of opportunity for manufacturers and distributors. The industry is comprised of non-durable goods that are produced, sold and consumed quickly. These products take the form of consumables such as beverages, packaged foods, toiletries and over-the-counter medication.

Fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) are a market with tremendous potential to drive economic growth in the SADC region and further afield. However, the industry is heavily dependent on reliable power, secure and efficient transport routes and strong distribution networks. FMCG typically have a small profit margin but are lucrative when sold in large quantities, thus a reduction in energy costs goes a long way towards bolstering narrow profit margins.

FMCG industrial manufacturing has great potential for Africa

Brilliant technologies and brave entrepreneurs

‘Africa has nine times the solar potential of Europe and an annual equivalent to one hundred million tons of oil.’

In a recent article in the Journal of International Affairs Professor Wim Naudé reports that in a landscape of brilliant technologies and brave entrepreneurs the future is looking bright for African manufacturing. According to Naudé, renewable energy technologies like solar panels and batteries may be expected to improve the competitiveness of African manufacturing.

Peter Diamandis, founder and CEO of the X Prize Foundation, and journalist Steven Kotler note that ‘Africa has nine times the solar potential of Europe and an annual equivalent to one hundred million tons of oil.’

The resources are there and the benefits in terms of cost are undeniable. Notable FMCG industry leader Coca-Cola Beverages Africa (CCBA) recently installed a 574 kWp solar facility at the Coca-Cola Namibia Bottling Company (CCNBC). The project is expected to produce 1,016,760 kWh of energy in the first year of production, with appreciable Energy and Demand charge savings expected in the first year of production. In addition this project results in 901 tons of CO2 reduction per year of operation. Given that Namibia’s solar irradiation levels are the second highest levels in the World (at 3000 kWh/m² over a large part of the country) and NamPower tariff increases are inevitable, it makes considerable sense to look to industrial solar power for cost-savings and decentralised efficiency.

The environmental benefits for your brand

The Learning and Development Director at IRI, Marylee Townshend predicts that given considerable global and local societal shifts in the past year, FMCG brands which stand for something are likely to win out in a competitive environment. Staying neutral is no longer an option as more consumers than ever before are developing a preference for ethical and environmentally-friendly products. This is a double win for manufacturers and distributors who commit to clean energy solutions, in terms of having a stable, cost-cutting energy source and brand success. Notable industry leader Fair Cape Dairies has stepped up to the plate by procuring solar PV  energy to provide clean, noise-free electricity to the farm during the day, while reducing the farm’s total energy consumption by 16% per annum over its 25-year lifespan.

‘Businesses that commit to clean energy, such as Fair Cape Dairies, are helping to lead the way for South Africa’s sustainable development,’ explains Dr Chris Haw, chairperson of SOLA and head of the Solar Finance division.

Plattekloof Village Shopping centre, owned by industry heavy-weight Pick n Pay Retailers, has also embraced clean energy solutions with a 944 kWp solar system on its roof, which is expected to generate 1.4 million kWh of clean electricity per year. Plattekloof Village is part of a growing fleet of shopping centres electing to supplement their electricity supply with decentralized solar PV. Given the recent challenges to Eskom’s ability to supply uninterrupted electricity it is unsurprising that malls, factories and distribution centres are increasingly looking to independent energy solutions. The ample roof space available and considerable daily energy use typified by these organisations makes industrial solar power the ideal solution.

FMCG challenges

FMCG is a challenging arena with many considerations for facilities managers. These include product placement and competition. Townshend contends that big data is increasingly the driving force behind tactical decisions in FMCG. In addition loyalty card data provides unparalleled insight into consumer behaviour. Given the financial climate in the region, cutting costs and value-for-money is an immediate concern for consumers. Narrow profit-margins in the FMCG industry means that every expense matters; this is when cost-efficient energy management becomes imperative.

Breweries and other FMCG industries can benefit from solar PV

Simplifying Electricity Management

Conservative consumption and optimum production are key to the success of every industrial FMCG facility. A good place to start is a comprehensive look at electricity bills over the course of a year. Following this analysis, spikes in energy consumption will quickly emerge, and from there it will be easier to implement energy-saving regimens. Introducing solar has been proven to result in considerable energy and cost-saving benefits. Once one has identified the peak capacity charges, measures can be made to reduce overall energy costs even if total energy consumption remains constant.

Solar financing

‘Solar finance – through a power purchase agreement – allows these businesses to commit to their targets and reduce their carbon emissions through buying clean energy directly…’

There are two options when considering harnessing the cost-saving benefits of industrial solar.

Firstly there is the outright buy or EPC solution, such as the facility at CCBA Windhoek, which purchased the solar system upfront to save on energy costs. Industrial energy consumers can save significantly by altering their electricity load to peak during the day when the solar PV system is most productive, thus reducing demand charges significantly. In a facility such as the CCBA Windhoek, the cost of the solar PV system is insignificant compared to the amount that it will produce over its lifetime.

The second option is a solar PPA, or power purchase agreement. This arrangement allows businesses to purchase solar PV-generated electricity with no upfront costs, while enjoying the immediate cost-saving benefits, such as the demand charges described earlier. The benefits of solar PPAs for industrial facilities are fixed tariff increases and monthly payment amounts, rather than lump-sum capex investments. Similarly, the solar PV system is not registered as an asset on the facility’s books, but is rather owned and maintained by a solar finance provider such as SOLA. After a few years, the facility can opt to buy back the solar PV system, or take ownership of the system after a specified number of years.

Such an arrangement was entered into by SOLA and Fair Cape Dairies. As Dr Haw explains, ‘Companies such as Fair Cape Dairies that have committed to sustainability goals, may not want to purchase a solar system outright. Solar finance – through a power purchase agreement – allows these businesses to commit to their targets and reduce their carbon emissions through buying clean energy directly. During the day, Fair Cape Dairies will use the clean energy generated on their roof for their own consumption needs, without owning the solar system themselves.’

Dairies can benefit from financed solar PV solutions

As the costs of solar equipment continue to fall, industrial solar power systems in Southern Africa are more viable than ever. Given Eskom’s escalating tariffs, large-scale solar facilities are able to provide consistent power for industrial operations at costs lower than Eskom’s lowest bulk tariff. Solar PV is both a cost-effective and decentralised form of energy, making it perfect for large-scale energy users in the FMCG sector.