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The definitive guide to solar PPAs

There’s been growing interest in solar PPAs over the past few years, and they are now much more mainstream. However, you may still have some questions about PPAs and solar finance. What are PPAs, and how can they benefit your business? We’ve put together a definitive guide to help. 

What is a solar PPA?

The term “PPA” is swung around quite a lot in the solar industry. PPA stands for “Power Purchase Agreement”, and it signifies a type of contract between an electricity generator (or Independent Power Producer – IPP) and an electricity consumer (or offtaker) – such as a commercial operation. A solar PPA is therefore a contract between a solar generator and an offtaker, stating that the generator will provide solar power and the offtaker will buy the solar power from them.

As a form of electricity, Solar PV is an easily-deployable, very safe option without any moving parts that produces electricity during light hours of the day, and therefore it often makes sense to embed the solar PV system directly into the factory, retail centre, warehouse, etc. where it will be consumed. As such, many commercial and industrial solar PPAs include the construction of an embedded generation solar facility on the site where the power will be used. In this instance, a solar PPA is a way for the customer to procure clean electricity and save on their electricity bills without deploying any CapEx, and only paying for the electricity that the system generates.

However, PPAs can also be entered into for clients where there is either too little space or too much energy demand to generate solar electricity directly on the site. In these situations, solar wheeling agreements can be entered into, which allow the purchase of solar power from a remote solar facility, such as a large solar farm, to be “wheeled” through the electricity grid and to the customer. Wheeling typically suits energy-intensive operations such as mines, smelters, data centres, and other large commercial operations.

Typically, the larger the size of the PV system, the lower the tariff. This is why solar PPAs are best suited to energy-intensive operations, where there is little chance of exporting excess energy. The most suitable size of the PV system depends on the client and type of operation, and is typically determined during a detailed feasibility process between the generator and offtaker. 

What are the benefits of a solar PPA?

There are several benefits of entering into a solar PPA, but they can be summarised into four main points:

  1. Cost saving

The major reason for entering into a solar PPA is the significant cost saving that customers tend to encounter. While grid tariffs have been increasing, the cost of solar PV components has reduced dramatically over the past 10 years, meaning that the cost per kWh of solar electricity tends to be much cheaper than power from the grid and other forms of onsite generation (diesel genset etc.). In addition, the solar PPA tariff includes all expenses relating to the solar system: upfront installation costs, part replacement, comprehensive asset insurance and ongoing operations and maintenance, meaning that the client will not have any hidden or unexpected costs over the life of the PPA.

  1. Carbon emissions reduction

Solar PV systems generate energy by converting the sun’s rays directly into electricity, forming a low-carbon, renewable energy source. A solar PPA is an easily accessible way for businesses to decrease their carbon footprint and meet their sustainability targets. 

  1. No outlay of CapEx or ongoing maintenance costs

If a customer wishes to procure their embedded solar PV facility outright, they will need to pay a supplier for the engineering, procurement and construction (EPC) of the project, which will have a large capital outlay. This is not always the best option for a business whose core operations are completely different to electricity generation, as the ongoing maintenance and performance of the plant will be their responsibility to manage. Whilst most EPC companies provide additional Operations and Maintenance services, it will be the responsibility of the client to ensure that those contracts are fully up to date and to log any issues with the service provider. 

  1. Future electricity cost perspective

Typically PPAs will have fixed tariff increases baked into the contract, ensuring that the future costs of electricity will be predictable and manageable. Historically, Eskom tariffs have risen an average of over 11% annually over the last 20 years, with a 15% increase announced in 2021. A solar PPA will have an escalation that is fixed and typically well below Eskom’s average and can be set in consultation with the client. 

How long is a solar PPA?

The main component of solar PV systems are the solar panels, with a market standard performance warranty of minimum 25 years. As such, typical PPAs range from 10 – 25 years. Although the length of the PPA is adaptable, the longer the PPA is, the lower the starting tariff will be. 

If your business is looking to procure sustainable power quickly, then the time of procurement should also be taken into consideration. For a simple solar PPA to take effect, there is typically a 5 – 6 month procurement time before the site establishment and construction, which incorporates the negotiation and signing of the commercial PPA as well as the design and licensing of the solar PV system. Here’s an example of the typical timeline of a solar PPA negotiation period:

Off-site PPAs that include a wheeling agreement may take longer to initiate because a solar generating site needs to be identified and permitted in addition to the normal PPA process. 

What’s the difference between a solar PPA and a solar lease?

Over the years, the terms “solar PPA”, “solar finance”, and “solar lease” have come to be used interchangeably, so what is the actual difference between these terms? The answer has to do with the history of energy legislation in South Africa and the allocation of risk.

Before November 2017, it was not possible in South Africa for Independent Power Producers to sell energy directly to consumers without a generation licence. As such, solar leases were utilised as a way for a private energy consumer to make use of a solar PV system by leasing the system instead of paying per unit of electricity the system generates. Then, in November 2017, an amendment to Schedule 2 of the Electricity Regulation Act allowed for private energy sale without the need for generation licence of projects less than a 1MW in size, which opened up the opportunity for Power Purchase Agreements to take effect. 

So the main difference between a solar lease and a solar PPA is contractual, and dependent on where the performance risk of the asset lies. In a solar lease, the performance risk lies with the customer or user of the solar PV system as they pay a fixed monthly fee for the system not linked to the output it generates. Whereas in a solar PPA the entire risk of the asset lies with the solar PV operator as only energy generated is paid for on a take-or-pay basis, making it a purely cost-saving mechanism for businesses.

Are there risks associated with a solar PPA?

As with any large commercial decision, the risks need to be understood up front. The main risks in entering into a PPA agreement include:

  1. The length of the contract

Whilst most business contracts are typically renewed on an annual basis, a PPA term is typically 10 years and longer to ensure the most cost effective solar tariff. As such, senior management will want to ensure that the cost and carbon savings associated with procuring clean electricity are worth the risk of entering into such a contract. This can be mitigated through various exit options including an option to purchase the system, which can be a condition of PPAs that allows the client to buy the solar PV system after a set amount of time for a periodic price that is agreed upfront, should the operational requirements of the business change.

  1. Changing operational requirements

The risk of changes to the business’ operational requirements is a standard business risk that should be considered for every new venture and/or product that is introduced, as it will have an impact on the overall efficacy of the plant or operation. If, for example, a product is no longer required and its manufacturing operation suddenly starts to use less electricity, this could impact on the cost-saving aspects of the PPA. Most PPAs are arranged on a “take-or-pay” basis, meaning that the client is responsible for paying for all the electricity that the system generates, including instances where the customer cannot take the energy not at the fault of the generator. In addition to careful business management, this risk is also mitigated through careful feasibility and design phases, which look in detail at the electricity requirements of the building or facility before suggesting the total size of the solar PV system to the client. Similarly, a PPA has a fixed tariff increase each year, meaning that electricity costs will be very predictable into the future, allowing for better business planning. 

Is a solar PPA right for my company?

Understanding if a solar PPA is the right option for your company is a decision that comes down to business management decisions around cost saving and sustainability. On cost saving, does your business have energy-intensive operation(s) around South Africa, and is a large amount of your company’s operational budget spent on electricity procurement? If so, a solar PPA is a great way to reduce electricity costs quickly, with low risk to the business, improving the profitability of your operations. Similarly, a PPA also ensures that future electricity costs are predictable, hedging against unpredictable Eskom increases.  

From a sustainability perspective, does your business have sustainability targets that require a reduction in carbon emissions or a requirement to procure renewable energy? If so, a solar PPA is a great capex-free way to reduce reliance on grid-supplied electricity, which in South Africa is highly carbon-intensive. For example, the CO2eq for South Africa’s grid is just under 1 kg per kWh, whilst solar is less than 0.01kg per kWh. From a procurement perspective, solar PV is considered 100% renewable, so the more solar PV that fuels your operation, the closer you will be to your renewable energy procurement target.

Is installing embedded solar PV in new property developments worthwhile?

Embedded solar PV generation is often retrofitted in industrial buildings due to its immense cost and carbon benefits. However, new buildings and greenfield property developments stand to benefit greatly from incorporating solar PV into their designs as well. 

According to the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), the costs of solar PV modules have fallen over 90% since the end of 2009, and energy storage components show similar trends. This translates to power systems that are increasingly affordable to integrate into new developments – particularly in sunny countries like South Africa.

So is it worthwhile to integrate solar PV into the design and construction of new buildings and property developments? Absolutely. In fact, according to Architizer, a leading architecture website, incorporating PV into building design is becoming increasingly popular as the options for mounting solar modules and integrating PV into building design expand.

Installing embedded solar PV on new property developments has a host of benefits:

  • Understanding the electricity load and how large the solar PV system will be upfront helps to integrate it into the building design, ensuring that it is aesthetically pleasing and/or seamless with the architect’s vision.
  • Incorporating solar PV modules into the roof design ensures that the roof can bear the weight and prevents the need to strengthen the roof at a later date
  • Inverter or battery rooms can be incorporated into the building design, which will keep them cool and dry, allowing them to function optimally and saving maintenance costs 
  • Solar PV is much cheaper than other forms of energy, so it makes the building costs more cost efficient from the start
  • Incorporating solar PV and/or energy storage into a new development can shield it from load shedding, making the property more attractive to tenants 

Integrating solar PV design into greenfield developments has become an obvious choice because it is one of the cheapest and most reliable forms of electricity available today. Several new developments are exploiting that: DSV Park opted to implement a large-scale solar PV system into their new 140,000 m² logistics facility, incorporating a 1.3 MWp solar PV system integrated into the Park’s electricity supply, alongside on-site diesel generators that allow it to safely operate during load shedding events. 


With alarming increases in electricity tariffs and grid unpredictability and load shedding in South Africa, many like DSV are opting for cleaner power supply. Solar PV systems last 25 years, so incorporating them into building electrical design is a way of ensuring that the assets have a stable power supply way into the future.

New report shows that job creation in the PV sector is inevitable

In the most conservative case, we’re looking at over 30 000 jobs created per year in the solar PV industry 

Job creation is one of the most important considerations for the South African economy. Sitting at around 29%, unemployment is a serious hindrance to the South African economy. The creation of solar PV systems for the government and private clients brings down costs and increases energy reliability, bolstering profitability and growing businesses. However, the question of how many jobs the PV industry creates has been a hot topic for several years. 

A new study, completed by the CSIR and commissioned by the South African Photovoltaic Industry Association (SAPVIA) with sponsorship from SOLA, has set out to look at just how many jobs solar PV has created in South Africa so far, and what we can expect from the industry in the future. 

Measuring jobs in the PV sector is tricky, because of the variability of jobs throughout the life-cycle of each plant. Typically, both large-scale and embedded generation plants will have quite a lot of employment during the construction phase, which taper off when the plant goes into Operation & Maintenance (O&M). However, these jobs last the lifetime of the plant, and thus are cumulative over time. 

How are solar jobs measured?


There’s been much discussion about how to measure jobs in the solar PV sector,  which has not had a unified approach or metric, resulting in confusion about the numbers of jobs created by the industry. As such, the first step in the research was coming up with a useful way to measure jobs, particularly those in the solar PV sector that tend to undulate based on construction times. 

Based on an international literature review and experiences in other survey approaches, the CSIR used “Full Time Equivalent” (FTE) as a metric to measure jobs. A FTE job looks at the amount of time that a worker spends at a job compared to a full time employee. For example, if an employee only works half-time, their FTE score would be 0.5. As a result, the metrics represented by FTE show what the equivalent full-time employment would be per annum for a particular job.

In addition, the CSIR used a standardised unit output of MW per annum in order to be able to compare jobs across the value chain. As such, the jobs in the analysis and in the future scenario modelling are represented FTE jobs per MW per annum. This allows the job statistics to be comparable across different sectors and in relation to other forms of employment creation, and takes a conservative view on estimating jobs.

The predicted scenarios for job creation in the solar PV industry in South Africa

The report looked at historical data in order to create a model to predict future employment scenarios in the sector. It modelled three different scenarios, the IRP 2019 scenario, the accelerated case scenario, and the high road scenario.

  1. The IRP 2019 scenario

This scenario looks purely at the jobs resulting from the Integrated Resources Plan 2019 by the South African Department of Mineral Resources and Energy. In this scenario, the solar PV industry would create between 33 000 – 35 000 jobs per year from 2022 and 2030, but there would be little consistency and large variations between years. 

  1. The accelerated scenario

This scenario takes into consideration the growth of the market outside of the IRP guidelines, and assumes that utility scale solar PV will be built in addition to embedded generation, owing to the government’s intention to allow more embedded generation to plug the energy supply gap in the short term. In this scenario, an initial spike in job creation of 51 580 FTE jobs will be created during 2022, followed by a dip back to 31 131 FTE jobs in 2023 and climbing to consistently to 37 975 jobs by 2030

  1. The high-road scenario

In this scenario, the predicted import of solar modules is expected to increase, in addition to the building of both Utility and embedded generation solar PV facilities, which continue to grow post-2022. In this scenario, jobs are expected to bounce up in 2022 to 53 422 FTE jobs, and return to 33 972 in 2023, growing steadily to 39 817 FTE jobs in 2030.

What does this mean for the sector?

The jobs report paints a picture of what the expected job creation trajectories will look like. The research highlights the fact that the halting of renewable energy procurement in 2015 was devastating to the jobs in the sector, but has not prevented it from recovering in the recent years. There are some important aspects to consider in order to ensure the maximum job creation:

  • O&M jobs are the most sustainable, as they run throughout the lifetime of each PV facility (usually around 20 – 25 years). They have the potential to create substantial, lasting job opportunities in the sector.
  • Localising PV component manufacturing could have a significant effect on the growth of PV-sector jobs in South Africa, particularly if there is a clear path to how much the sector will grow each year.
  • The embedded generation market is a very important player in the creation of PV jobs, but has been hindered by policy uncertainty. 

Overall, the report shows that whichever scenario ends up playing out, there is likely to be significant growth of solar PV jobs in the coming years. 

Download the full report here.

Interested in working for us? Have a look at our careers page for possible vacancies.

Energy Wheeling supplies power to areas located away from the direct source of power

SOLA gets approval for largest solar PV wheeling agreement in South Africa

A flagship renewable energy project, commissioned by Amazon, is set to demonstrate the flexibility and convenience of procuring independent power through the electricity grid. The project will see 28 GWh of solar energy wheeled via Eskom’s utility grid from a solar farm in the Northern Cape to Amazon’s facilities each year.

Energy wheeling holds tremendous value in that it enables the supply of energy to urban areas from energy projects in outlying areas, such as a solar farm located in an area where the sun is most powerful and consistent. This is done through the transfer of electrical power via a utility’s distribution system. In other words, the power generated in a sunny area is distributed to an offtaker where there might be less solar resource. 

Chris Haw, SOLA’s Executive Director, explains that although the concept of wheeling energy using Eskom’s existing infrastructure has been in place since 2008, certain administrative barriers have hindered the uptake of such services. “This project, which comprises a 10 MW solar PV farm, has also received a sought-after generation license from NERSA, a milestone that other similar projects have struggled to achieve.”

SOLA will be responsible for developing the project and will build, own and operate the solar facility.

Haw explains that the NERSA process requires a signed Power Purchase Agreement and fully developed project in order to obtain approval. “This creates contractual challenges because many inputs, such as the foreign exchange rate, are still fluctuating whilst the application process is underway. The high standard of development required for submission means that NERSA are not handing out licenses to projects that won’t proceed, which is a very good thing.” 

The project aligns with the South African Government’s intent to open the electricity grid, allowing independent generators of electricity and consumers to enter into bilateral agreements to optimise the cost and sustainability of energy, which has previously been difficult to achieve. The generation license received from NERSA is one of the first granted as part of the recent allocation made for distributed electricity generation in order to plug the short-term capacity gap.

Haw says that SOLA will deliver the energy via the Transmission Network though a Wheeling Use-of-System agreement. “This Wheeling Use of System Agreement is the first of its kind and the largest solar PV wheeling arrangement in South Africa to date.”

Haw credits the company’s multi-disciplined skillset and 10-year track record of developing, financing and building solar PV projects in South Africa with overcoming the many challenges that were faced.

The SOLA Group has a history of breaking down barriers to enable renewable energy projects in South Africa. The group developed some of the county’s first IPP projects, signed the first bi-directional metering agreements with municipalities, and are responsible for innovative solar-plus-storage projects like the microgrid currently powering Robben Island.

The project will be majority black South African-owned, demonstrating a pivotal dedication to transformation in South Africa’s energy sector. Mahlako a Phahla Investments, a black women-owned and operated energy and infrastructure investment holding company will own 45% of the project.

Other investors into the project include African Infrastructure Investment Managers (AIIM), through the IDEAS Fund, one of South Africa’s largest domestic infrastructure equity funds and one of the largest investors in the country’s renewable energy landscape.

The project’s success could mean that more companies like Amazon will look to procure cleaner independent power through the grid.

“This project is the tip of the iceberg in terms of what the electricity picture in South Africa could look like,” says Haw. “Projects like this demonstrate the potential of a truly modernized electricity market where consumers can procure cleaner energy through state-owned grid lines whilst paying for their upkeep in the process,” he adds.

The project will begin construction in early 2021.

South Africa electricity grid supply

The great opportunity to reform South Africa’s power sector

Over the past few weeks, there has been encouraging movement in South Africa’s electricity sector that indicates a gradual opening of the electricity market. NERSA recently confirmed that licensing of electricity generation over 1 MW will be allowed without ministerial sign-off, which could make the processing of renewable energy generation licences more efficient; and municipalities were recently granted the freedom to procure their own power. In addition, the prospect of the renewable energy bid window 5 (REIPPP 5) opening in December indicates that South Africa is starting to take the procurement of renewable electricity seriously. 

And whilst renewables still make up a small share of South Africa’s total generation capacity, the growing cost gap between the grid and solar, along with falling battery prices, means that South African electricity consumers are faced with something new in the context of our traditionally monopolistic electricity market: choice.

As was discussed in our previous piece on going off grid, it is clear that many consumers are choosing to go entirely off grid. However, mass grid defection is not necessarily the most optimal system for the majority of South African consumers. If the government suppresses private and distributed electricity generation, forcing customers to choose between staying on grid with expensive, unreliable power, and quitting the grid entirely, there may be large-scale grid defection as businesses choose to forego the unreliable and expensive grid. This will erode both Eskom and municipal revenue streams, driving more tariff increases that impact many South Africans

However, effective grid modernisation will turn potential defectors into ‘prosumers’, who choose to remain grid-connected and participate in a more open and mutually-beneficial electricity market. There are already some municipalities in South Africa that allow for grid feed-in (see this convenient list), which helps grid-tied solar PV systems become more profitable. However, we’re still a long way from a mature electricity market, where the cheapest electricity can be generated and consumed when it is required, enabling overall cost reductions of electricity. 

A modern grid will make use of enhanced infrastructure for better management of variable renewable energy, and ensure equitable electricity pricing that allows consumers to generate their own electricity and/or buy electricity from independent power producers whilst paying fees to utilise the electrical grid. This could generate new revenue that would enable better maintenance of the existing infrastructure, further replacing outages. 

However, we are still a way off from this “modern grid” idea. Some of the immediate steps that could be taken to enable grid modernisation, preventing mass defection and price increases, could include:

  • Laws and standards must be updated to cater for all technologies in the energy mix. 
    • We’re starting to see some progress on this, but there is still a fair way to go, according to Anton Eberhard:

  • Grid operators should be assisted with tariff modernisation
  • Arbitrary size restrictions on embedded generators should be reset based on rational technical and cost considerations. 
  • Permitting and licencing authorities must be held to their mandates and assisted and upskilled where needed.

If we can ensure that these factors are considered, there will be a hopeful outlook for South Africa’s electricity future. The alternative picture is not as sunny, as our power system could devolve into something undesirable for businesses and inequitable for South African citizens. 

Is it possible for your business to go off-grid?

A question many businesses are asking in 2020, particularly with the onslaught of load shedding, is the possibility of going entirely off grid. This is unsurprising – grid reliability has been severely reduced over the past few years and Eskom tariffs are substantially higher than the costs of solar on an average lifetime basis. As such, many companies are looking at the possibility of severing ties with the grid and managing their energy needs independently.

Historically, solar has not been viable as an alternative primary electricity supply to the grid primarily because of its variability. Because the sun only shines during the day, the deployment of solar has often been limited to partial offset of daytime electricity demand – a solution which tends to save companies significantly on their electricity bill. But for solar to be a ‘dispatchable’, 24-hour alternative to the grid, it needs to be coupled with storage, or with other flexible sources of demand or generation, which has often made it an expensive choice.

This, however, is changing. In South Africa, overall costs of solar-plus-storage have historically compared unfavourably to most grid tariffs, limiting off-grid projects to areas with no grid access or grid capacity constraints. However, there are already several industrial and commercial grid tariff structures that make off-grid solutions a cheaper and more reliable alternative than remaining on grid, particularly for industrial operations that have high power requirements and tend to supplement their supply frequently with diesel generators to keep their electricity supply consistent.

How do you know if it is viable for your company to go off grid? One of the key questions to ask is how much your business currently relies on diesel generators. If you use them around 15 – 20% of the time, it is almost certain that a solar + storage solution will save your business money. Secondly, if your facility has large power (kVA) requirements and is on a high industrial tariff, the business case of going off grid could be advantageous.

Cost reductions and improved efficiency in energy storage technology have major implications for the future of South Africa’s power system: it means that some electricity consumers on expensive tariff structures can already choose an alternative to Eskom or their local municipality. Even those on cheaper tariffs are likely to follow as grid tariffs rise and solar and battery equipment gets cheaper.

Of course, large-scale grid defection might not be the ideal outcome for all South Africans. It will erode the economies of the national grid and increase costs for many segments of society. This is why power sector reform must urgently facilitate an efficient and equitable transition to renewable energy.

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.

How electricity generation has changed over the past 10 years – and what it bodes for our future

Alongside the global pandemic, electricity has been on many South African’s minds this year. And rightly so: South Africans can expect a 15% increase in their electricity costs from mid-2021, based on a recent court ruling which grants Eskom the right to recover operating costs through additional tariff escalations. This will mark more than a decade of average annual increases of 14%, relative to average inflation of just under 6%.

These escalations have fundamentally changed South Africa’s economy: the manufacturing and mining sectors have been particularly affected by the rising tariffs, and are doubly affected by the inconsistent supply caused by load shedding. South Africa’s electricity supply from the grid is subject to decreasing reliability, with 2020 already shaping up to be the worst on record for load shedding.

What South Africa is experiencing is not unique, but exposes the global trends that expose the high costs of maintaining an aging and centralised coal fleet. A decade ago, average Eskom tariffs were two times lower than they are today, and the costs of installing solar PV were two to three times higher. That situation is very different today: Eskom and municipal electricity tariffs are now substantially more expensive than solar PV installations on an average, lifetime cost basis. This is driving strong uptake of own-use solar generators, despite persistent policy and regulatory barriers.

This is because the electricity market has fundamentally changed over the last 10 years. The growing cost gap between the grid and solar PV means that the benefits of solar are more economically viable, even if the PV plants generate more power than required (for example on weekends, when a factory does not operate). 

For private electricity consumers, solar electricity is typically used to offset daytime electricity consumption through ‘own-use’ or ‘embedded’ generators that service the electricity needs of the facility on-site. The uptake of embedded solar generation has exploded in South Africa, particularly amongst the retail and manufacturing sectors, because of the cost savings generated by the plants. Despite this, embedded generators are largely restricted from selling power into the grid, although it is looking hopeful that this might change

The fact that solar PV is so much more affordable than Eskom’s grid is also changing the way in which solar PV is consumed by large commercial and industrial facilities. For example, some facilities choose to oversize their solar PV system relative to on-site electricity demand in order to increase morning and afternoon solar electricity production, generate more power in winter, save more diesel during load shedding, reduce peak grid demand charges, and achieve higher overall reductions in grid electricity consumption. 


Other commercial and industrial facilities are opting to oversize their solar PV systems and store the excess affordable power in battery banks – something that, 10 years ago, would have been ludicrously expensive. However, with Eskom’s tariffs increasing the way they are, and with the reduction in the costs of energy storage components, the business case is starting to emerge. The advancement in electricity generation technology gives businesses more flexibility and options when it comes to their energy choices. Own-use solar – whether on or off grid – is an affordable and, by now, well-used option.

Load Shedding Solutions for Your Business

Load Shedding, unfortunately, has become a norm in South Africa. Even though load shedding takes place to stop the entire country from experiencing a permanent blackout (by the collapsing of the whole electricity supply grid), load shedding still has major negative effects on the economy in South Africa. 

Several reports now estimate that South Africa will experience severe load shedding for at least two more years. The frequency of load shedding, even during COVID 19’s economic standstill, indicates just how fragile Eskom’s fleet has become, and businesses have to find a solution to remain operational. The positive news is that a plethora of technology now exists which can help your business to find a solution to ending the nightmare of operational disturbances.

The causes of load shedding 

Load shedding happens when there is not enough electricity available to meet the demand of all customers. In order to maintain grid stability, the electricity utility supplier will interrupt the energy supply to certain areas on a rotational basis.  The winter-months are prone to load shedding, as it can be  caused by the higher demand for electricity during cold weather, which causes the power station stations to be overloaded and  struggle to  keep up with generating the needed electricity capacity.

According to Eskom and government officials, the solution is a capacity problem, requiring the construction of additional power stations and generators. However, the procurement of additional national capacity could be a lengthy process. In the meantime, there are alternative electricity solutions to help businesses during load shedding.

Various methods can be used to minimise the impact of load shedding, and below we suggest a few solutions businesses can use to see their operational disturbances be minimised. 

Solutions to load shedding

1. Uninterruptible power supply systems (UPS systems) 

A UPS is an electrical apparatus that provides emergency power to a load when the main power supply or utility power fails.

A UPS is the bare minimum when it comes to business operational management, as it allows for the safe, orderly shutdown of computers and connected equipment. The size and design of a UPS will determine how long it will supply power.

A UPS will only work if power banks are fully charged and on standby when needed. Unfortunately these are short term solutions, due to the fact that the power banks may run out of power before the electricity comes back on. This means that, once the UPS’s reserve has been depleted, there is no alternative supply of power, which might negatively impact productivity and affect day to day operating of the business.

2. Backup generator  

Many businesses have turned to backup generators to ensure the continuous supply of power. Generators typically use diesel or gas, and convert mechanical energy into electrical energy as the output. 

Gas generators can be used for residential emergency power supply and can last about 2 to 3 hours,  which may not be ideal for a business function. Diesel generators, on the other hand, can run for 20 – 30 hours, depending on their capacity.

However, with the ever increasing price of fuel, running a generator can become prohibitively expensive. The lifespan of a generator depends on its run hours – a generator that is used infrequently could last around 20 years. In a scenario of increased and consistent load shedding, generators may need to be replaced more frequently. 

In addition, it is important to consider the noise and fumes that a generator might emit, which can be an additional frustration to an already stressful working environment. 

Diesel generators on Robben Island

3. Grid-tied PV Solar system 

A solar PV system is composed of solar modules combined with an inverter and other electrical and mechanical hardware that use energy from the sun to generate electricity. PV systems can vary greatly in size, from small rooftop or portable systems to massive utility-scale generation plants. In South Africa, which has fantastic irradiation, solar PV tends to be the most affordable kind of power to generate.

However, typical solar PV systems are grid-tied, meaning that they would go down during load shedding. This is because, although the sun may continue to shine during a power outage, the inverters will automatically switch off in the event of a grid outage. An inverter is required for solar PV systems in South Africa, to convert the DC power generated by the modules to AC power, which is used in buildings and commercial operations. Inverters are designed to switch off in the event of a power outage, to ensure the safety of personnel that could be working on the grid during an outage.

Luckily, a simple “workaround” can ensure that during the day, a solar PV system can still remain operational during a power outage. As we explained in our previous post about load shedding, installing hardware and a simple generator/UPS system can ensure that inverters remain on during outages, and the solar PV system can continue to generate low-cost power during this time. Several SOLA customers have used this technology, such as Old Mutual Park. 

Old Mutual Solar Carport

Installing a solar PV system is a great cost effective way to get your business not having to deal with the crisis of load shedding in South Africa.

4. Off-grid solar PV system

An off-grid solar PV and battery system, also known as a stand-alone power system (SAPS), or solar PV microgrid, works by balancing several electricity sources, such as solar PV and batteries. Solar PV microgrids work by generating electricity from solar modules and using them to charge a battery via a charger controller.

An off-grid system works independently of a utility grid , which makes it an independent power generation source, ideal for remote or rural areas, such as the microgrid in Clanwilliam’s Cedar mill Mall.  However, with increased load shedding, this form of electricity generation is starting to make financial sense in urban areas too.

Although many companies may be reluctant to move off-grid,  solar PV microgrids are becoming the most long-term and cost effective solution for permanent power supply in South Africa. 

Cedar Mill Mall Solar PV Microgrid

Conclusion

With the prospect of load shedding being around for at least another three years, considering viable alternative sources of power is important for business. With the rising tariffs and other issues at Eskom, companies need to seek out the best alternative power generation options for their businesses. 

Now that we are ready to “reopen” our economy after the COVID 19 lockdown, load shedding will be a reality for many businesses. The good news is that there are lots of options for business owners to ensure continuous power – whether through a  UPS system, backup generators or solar PV systems. The options are there to help ease your mind with the effect that load shedding has caused to businesses.

Three ways to future proof your business in light of COVID-19

We are now into our third month of lockdown, and are starting to see the widespread economic impact of the COVID 19 pandemic. In South Africa, lockdown restrictions have eased a little, with most sectors returning to work and strict health protocols in place. However, we are far from where we were at the beginning of March, when COVID 19 seemed only like a remote possibility. It now seems like we might be entering the worst economic recession since the Second World War. In light of this, how will businesses prepare for the already uncertain future?

A recession worse than last year

According to the South African Reserve Bank, the South African economy  is expected to contract by 7% in 2020. Many sectors have been hard hit, with sectors such as manufacturing being particularly affected. Manufacturing itself was already struggling before the pandemic hit:  in February it reported a 2.1% year-on-year decrease in production volumes. The loss of production during the lockdown has further slowed some manufacturing sectors, such as the automotive industry, making their future uncertain. 

The struggling sectors, combined with the the fact that many South African’s have lost their jobs and will be spending little in the economy. Initial research shows that up to 14% of South African consumers have lost their jobs, with a further 37% saying that their work hours have been reduced. Many of them will be forced to cut expenditures dramatically in order to make ends meet, further shrinking the economy.

Since a recession seems inevitable, how can businesses weather the storm? The following are three suggestions. 

  1. Look critically at your business strategy

Those businesses that are flexible in either their operations or their offering will be the most likely to survive economic recession. We’ve seen this first hand: the closure of businesses that were successful but unable to adapt to the lockdown situation, and the success of businesses that make the most of the opportunity. Because no one saw this coming, it is those businesses that quickly adapted that got this aspect right. 

During a recession, essential, basic-needs items remain, whilst luxury, non-essential items are prioritised less by consumers. Pivoting your business strategy in order to meet the needs of consumers is important. In a business that focuses on industrial manufacturing, see if there are opportunities for operational efficiencies, such as making a basic necessity from the by-product of an industrial process, such as South African Breweries changing their manufacturing processes during the nationwide alcohol ban to produce much-needed hand sanitizer.

Rethinking business strategy is important for remaining profitable during a recession
  1. Cut operational expenditure

Cash flow is an essential to surviving a recession, and the reason that even profitable companies go under: without the cash to pay off operating expenses or salaries, businesses can quickly become bankrupt. One way to cut expenses, before the difficult decisions to retrench staff members, is to start with operational costs. In manufacturing and other industries, the easiest way to cut these expenses is to look to utilities – electricity and water – to ensure they are not spending more than necessary on these items. 

Start by evaluating the business for any potential inefficiencies: is it possible to shift production slightly later, to avoid peak hours? Can you implement a staggered start up of the plant, to avoid kVA surges and the associated costs? Have you made sure that energy inefficient lighting and heating have been taken care of? Once these factors have been examined, it is easier to identify how to proceed with reducing operating costs. 

One way that is very helpful to cut operating costs is through procuring solar PV electricity through a Power Purchase Agreement or PPA. This allows your business to benefit from lower electricity tariffs during the sunlight hours, and can be particularly beneficial if you can shift the bulk of production to happen during the day when the sun is shining. The one great thing about solar PV is that, even in the context of a global recession, prices are predicted to continue rapidly dropping.  

  1. Make sure your staff are engaged

Although there has been much written about employee engagement over the last few years, this “buzzword” does translate to the bottom line. A study conducted globally found that companies with highly engaged staff members had 17 % returns than those with low engagement levels. Therefore, in a recession where the bottom line is under threat, ensuring that employees are engaged could have a significant financial impact. (This also translates to employee turnover, by the way – about 40% of employees at low-engagement firms were likely to be looking elsewhere for jobs).

So how do companies create high employee engagement? This goes beyond basic employee wellness interventions, and translates back to genuine employer-employee value. If your employees believe that you are genuine about investing in them, they will be more likely to invest themselves in their job, which will translate into financial returns.

Employee engagement for solar PV