Oct 2019

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.

Industrial solar installations – dos and don’ts for facilities managers

If you run an industrial facility you’ll be well aware of the benefits of grid-tied solar PV solutions. Running cheaper and more efficiently than utility-provided power (such as Eskom), solar PV provides substantial savings for industrial facilities as a source of reliable alternative power. However, there are many solar companies purporting the benefits of solar power, and not all facilities managers are able to discern the best option for their facility. The below guide highlights 5 dos and don’ts for facilities managers to ensure that the procurement of solar is an effortless one.

Do: Practice due diligence when procuring solar PV.

Procuring solar PV is a 25 year decision. If chosen correctly, solar PV can provide 25 years of affordable and clean energy to your industrial plant. As such, it is important that the procurement process is done thoroughly and due diligence is practiced. It can be easy to rush into buying solar – particularly when the savings look promising. However, practicing due diligence when procuring solar will pay off in the long run. Start by asking a few simple questions about the solar PV procurement.

  • What is the objective of the PV system? If you are using it to save money, are you looking to make operational savings through a Power Purchase Agreement, or add value to your building through acquiring a solar asset? Perhaps a bit of both?
  • If you are looking to buy a solar system outright, do you have sufficient finance to do this? Is a PPA a better option for your business?
  • What is your typical energy load, and how much of it occurs during the day? Setting up metering can really help in determining what the right sized solar PV system would look like. 
  • Where would you place the solar PV system? Although wheeling arrangements allow power to be generated in a remote solar PV facility, the majority of small-scale embedded generation (SSEG) occurs on site. Having either a stable roof or a suitable piece of land is an important consideration when writing up your request for solar quotation.

Do: Get a reputable company to carry out your industrial solar installation

The most important part of your decision will be based on getting a reputable company to build the industrial solar installation. This means choosing a company with a solid track record of solar projects, particularly in industrial facilities. The chosen company should be able to get good prices on high-quality solar components such as modules; design efficiently and thoroughly, and carry out construction safely and within the budget and timeline. 

If you’re opting for a solar PPA option – where you don’t own the solar PV facility but simply buy the energy that it generates – you’ll want to ensure that the company you choose has sufficient available finance to build and maintain the system. Making sure that the company has credentials to stick around for the full term of the PPA is important.  Make sure that the solar PV service provider can meet basic requirements, such as:

  • Design credentials. Does the company have the relevant design experience and credentials to effectively design a PV system for your site? 
  • Adherence to minimum standards. In South Africa, this includes adherence to all relevant SANS codes, and ensuring that items such as wind load calculations are carried out according to SANS standards
  • Compliance with Municipal and National electricity standards municipal/eskom standards, including carrying out the relevant application processes to ensure that the PV system is legally compliant (such as Small Scale Embedded Generation (SSEG) applications)
  • Ensuring that a Practicing Engineer (Pr. Eng) is able to sign off on the system design and construction, yield estimation accuracy, 
  • Qualified site supervision, and construction that complies with all Occupational Health and Safety standards
Industrial Solar Installations SOLA

Do: Compare Apples with Apples

Getting comparative quotes is always recommended: it helps you to compare different solar PV companies and pricing, which helps to make a better decision. However, make sure to compare apples with apples when comparing quotes. It is important to consider that different PV companies structure their pricing in different ways, so be sure you understand exactly what each company is offering before comparing their pricing. 

When comparing proposals from various companies, consider the following: 

  • Equipment selection: the selection of tier 1, quality equipment will likely push the price up slightly, but it will mean that the system is better able to perform over its 25 year lifespan.
  • Inverter and panel derating characteristics: the derating of inverters and panels will affect the ability of the PV system to produce power over time
  • The sizing of the PV system: Is is optimally sized in order to meet your load requirements? A system that is too large or too small won’t save you the optimal amount of money. A slightly higher AC-DC ration will also affect price.
  • Lifetime savings and guaranteed savings: make sure you compare these two metrics, as the initial EPC price might differ but offer more in the way of lifetime savings, etc.  
  • Total guarantee/warranty package, insurance and liability: what parts of the system are insured and have warranties? This will affect the costs of upkeep and maintenance of the system. 

If you are thinking of entering into a solar Power Purchase Agreement (eg. buying solar energy directly), consider the following when comparing quotes:

  • The length of the PPA. Generally, the longer the PPA, the more affordable the tariffs will be. The length of the PPA will need to suit your business’s needs over the long term, considering things like whether the business would like to take ownership of the PV system.
  • The tariff escalation. At a first glance, a PPA tariff might appear higher, but it will have a lower escalation throughout the length of the PPA. Understanding the escalation is important to consider
  • Any upfront payments – again, a lower tariff might be because of a large upfront payment, so it is important to consider when comparing quotes. This is also the case with any bullet payments during the term or at the end of the PPA. 
  • Whether insurance and part replacement is included in the tariff. Again, a lower tariff might have excluded these items, making the costs more over the long run.
  • Forex – how forex is calculated and included on the agreement will affect the price. 

Don’t: Delay the solar procurement process

As much as it is important to practice due diligence when procuring solar PV, delaying the process unnecessarily is also seriously detrimental to the solar PV process. Solar PV savings start from day 1 – meaning that delaying the process is also delaying the cost savings. If the process is delayed, there could be unnecessary complications and expenses, such as 

  • Availability of the construction team and build schedule – most companies have tight timelines and their availability could mean that the process is further delayed if your project is not booked into the build schedule timeously.
  • SSEG applications – delaying choosing a solar PV provider can result in a delayed SSEG application, which can result in delays to switching the PV system on (and thus benefiting from the clean energy that it provides!)
  • Structural assessments – delaying the procurement process can also affect the structural assessment process, which is an essential part of rooftop solar PV systems. This can result in an overall delay of constructing the project. 

Dont: forget to calculate your cost savings through solar – both monetary and environmental 

At the end of the day, the solar PV system will save your business significantly in terms of operational costs. However, there is also significant benefit in terms of environmental savings. Keeping track of the carbon emissions savings is an important way to acknowledge the value of the solar PV system. 

Making sure that you have a competent Operations and Maintenance Service Partner will ensure that you can keep track of the relevant cost savings on a monthly basis and ensure that the plant is performing optimally. This can help to diagnose and solve any issues early, saving money for your operations.

If you have opted for a solar PPA, ensure that your partner provides you with carbon emissions savings with your monthly invoice, so that you can use the data when calculating your overall carbon savings. Solar PV is a choice that not only saves money – it is a conscious choice that ultimately will sustain generations to come. It’s something to be proud of, and use in your marketing strategy.

In conclusion, solar installations are useful for industrial facilities. Saving costs and carbon, they are a surefire way to increase cost savings. Following the above dos and don’ts will ensure that your solar installation is ultimately the right fit for your business. 

Solar for mines

How solar for mines helps to reduce operational costs and achieve a lower carbon footprint

Reliance on third-party infrastructure a significant risk for mines

The outlook for the mining industry in South Africa was a mixed bag in 2018 with bulk commodity prices continuing to rise from their lull at the beginning of 2016, while precious metals continued to struggle. Cost increases have put the mining industry under significant pressure and although price plays a crucial role in profitability, there are large fixed-cost elements associated with mining. Thus maintaining and ensuring optimum production levels plays a significant role in achieving profitability. 

This is why reliance on over-stretched third-party electricity suppliers such as Eskom can compromise profitability. In PwC’s annual publication highlighting trends in the South African mining industry it was reported that one of the significant subcategories driving risk is reliance on third party infrastructure with the cost and availability of electricity and water still a concern.

Mining facilities that typically rely on diesel electricity can use a solar microgrid to reduce the overall cost of energy, increase energy resiliency, thus ensuring control of their energy and power requirements. SOLA’s energy storage services department has considerable experience in combining battery storage solutions and existing generators in microgrid systems ensuring a continuous, uninterrupted electricity supply which is integrated with all other power sources.

Namibia and Botswana considering a 20-year, 4.5 GW solar push

‘The market for electricity produced by the mega-solar projects in Botswana and Namibia includes 12 other countries in the region that could be connected via new and/or upgraded transmission infrastructure,’ – WEF

The World Economic Forum’s (WEF) Global Future Council on Energy, has revealed that the governments of Botswana and Namibia are planning to develop 5 GW of solar capacity over the next two decades. Namibia and Botswana are considered perfect candidates for solar owing to their high solar radiation, strong legal and regulatory environments, suitable land availability and potential to host a low-cost, efficient electricity market to meet rising demand in the region. It has been suggested that this ambitious project, if completed, could lead to Namibia and Botswana exporting power to South Africa.

Botswana, a founding partner in a responsible mining initiative

Reducing carbon emissions is part of a global trend in the mining industry. Bloomberg reported last month that an explosive demand for renewable energy is expected to drive a global rush of exploitation, thus Botswana, the US, Australia and Peru are founding partners in an initiative to encourage responsible mining of rare earths and other minerals used in renewable energy projects such as solar panels, wind turbines and car batteries. 

Botswana’s mining industry contributes a third to the country’s GDP and 50% of tax earnings, and although the last quarter has seen a dip, economic growth is projected to pick up to 4.6% in 2020, supported by ongoing structural reforms aimed at diversifying the economy. It is perfectly primed to implement solar energy storage for mines owing to high solar radiation, the remote location of its mining facilities, weak grid supply and reliance on diesel.

Projected economic growth in Namibia in 2020

The IMF reports that Namibia’s economy will return to growth in 2020 after contracting for three straight years, though a failure to implement structural reforms could contribute to sluggish growth. Namibia has the second highest solar irradiation levels in the world, thus making solar energy storage for mines an appealing option.

No longer a question of if, but when

‘Industries that aren’t moving towards zero-carbon emissions will be punished by investors and go bankrupt’

Industries that aren’t moving towards zero-carbon emissions will be punished by investors and go bankrupt, warned the governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, last week. Thus renewable and storage technologies present the perfect solution by reducing energy costs while improving power quality and lowering carbon emissions.

The climate crisis will have a real financial effect on all major industries. Last Tuesday Carney told large corporations that they had two years to agree to rules for reporting climate risks before global regulators devised their own and made them compulsory.

Energy autonomy or supplementing grid supplied energy with embedded energy generation are both solutions to optimising production costs and reducing carbon footprint. Solar PV is both a cost-effective and decentralised form of energy, making it perfect for mines and other large scale energy-producers choosing to supplement their supply.

 Off-grid solar provides the ideal energy storage solution for mines. Remote locations, weak grid supply and reliance on diesel provide the optimal business case for solar PV microgrid. To test if your mining facility is suited to making the switch to off-grid make use of SOLA’s user-friendly mining tool.