Posted in: Solar PPA

Sick of load-shedding? How wheeling can save the South African electricity landscape

Just as South Africans start forgetting about the resources that go on behind the scenes when they switch on the lights, they’re reminded about how much they’re actually reliant on Eskom. But the return of load shedding spells something even more concerning than the inability to make supper or catch up on the latest series: how South African industry suffers when Eskom can’t keep up with demand.

Private companies have, however, not been complacent when it comes to their power procurement strategies. As electricity provision and stability becomes a significant business risk, they are seeking out alternative strategies to procure the power that they need. They are demanding more from the market – they want stable, cost effective power – and the market is adapting to meet their needs. This is where renewable energy wheeling comes in.

Wheeling is a financial transaction that allows power to be produced in one location and billed to an energy user in another region via the grid. This allows power to be generated for a private company in bulk amounts, without the generator needing to be geographically located at the site of use (“embedded generation” has been the chief way of providing back-up power until now, through diesel generators, solar PV systems and energy storage or batteries). This enables corporate users of electricity to procure power for their operations, and for the market to provide solutions for them based on their needs.

Wheeling can take place through a wheeling-use-of-system agreement with Eskom, based on the principle of non-discriminatory access, provided that compliance with Nersa and other regulatory requirements are met. This has been in place since 2009, but has rarely been used; the SOLA Group signed the first large-scale wheeling agreement for private buyer Amazon in late 2020. Technically, any form of electricity generation could provide private power through wheeling, but companies who pursue this type of power procurement, like Amazon, are more likely to choose the most cost-effective and sustainable option: renewable energy.

With South Africa’s abundant resources in both solar and wind energy, renewable energy options are proving to be more cost effective than other forms of energy generation – particularly when the generation plants are located in areas with abundant resources of wind and sun. In addition, these forms of energy generation are low-impact to the environment – meaning that they produce very little greenhouse gasses to manufacture and operate throughout their lifespans. This is particularly important for international companies such as Amazon and ABinBev, who have committed to aggressive carbon reduction targets for their operations.

As alternative power procurement grows, it will relieve Eskom’s capacity constraints by providing additional power to the grid. Eskom has reported its urgent need for an additional 4000 – 6000 MW of generation capacity to assist the utility with power provision, alongside its accelerated maintenance programme, in order to reduce load shedding risk.

This could be great news for the economy: load shedding purportedly cost South Africa’s economy around R75 billion in 2020, draining at least 2% to South Africa’s GDP loss during 2020, a year in which economic activity was actually subdued due to the pandemic.

There are legitimate concerns about the phasing out of coal, both from a technical and social perspective. The technical concerns are easily addressed through the provision of energy storage facilities and on-demand back-up power sources like green hydrogen; the social issues by keeping the Just Transition front and centre of the picture. Part of this is recognising the extreme business and social risks that a rapidly warming planet will bring, particularly in countries like South Africa.

As renewable energy wheeling becomes the go-to option for business consumers of electricity, the phase-out of coal will be more achievable. But renewable energy wheeling does not spell the end of Eskom – it just modernises the utility’s function. Wheeling requires a fee to be paid for every kWh wheeled through the grid. It is a great model for the utility, as they get paid to maintain the gridlines that provide South African businesses and citizens with the electricity that is central to their operations and livelihoods. 

Wheeling is the start of a modernised electricity picture, as it uses Eskom’s grid to connect private buyers and sellers together, in turn making more space for competition and choice for private buyers. A modernised grid could see private buyers and sellers of energy trading, whilst Eskom is paid to maintain its important grid infrastructure. This could provide more generation capacity, reduce South Africa’s carbon footprint, and ultimately spell the end of load shedding.

Adams solar facility in the Northern Cape

What does the first large-scale wheeling project mean for South Africa?

SOLA has officially launched a first-of-its-kind 10 MW solar plant in the Northern Cape three months ahead of schedule, which provides clean energy to Amazon Web Services via the Eskom grid. Energy wheeling, a new model of private energy procurement, allows power to be generated and purchased in geographically distinct locations. The Adams Solar PV project will provide over 28 million kWh of clean electricity to Amazon Web Services annually. 

This is the first operational large-scale solar PV wheeling project in South Africa, and the model is futuristic: it uses Eskom’s grid to connect private buyers and sellers together making the way for more choice and competition.  It’s the first step forward in creating grid independence where private buyers and sellers of energy can trade with each other.

This means that the renewable energy plant will provide a low-carbon alternative to coal-fired power for a private offtaker (in this case Amazon Web Services) without needing to be geographically located at the site of use. 

How? The solar PV plant comprises over 24 000 bifacial solar modules on single axis trackers, covering an area of 20 hectares. It is situated in the Northern Cape, where the solar resource is one of the best in the world. The solar PV facility tracks the sun throughout the day and absorbs irradiance from both the sky and reflected light from the ground. This design will see over 25 000 tons of carbon emissions being avoided annually – the equivalent of taking 5400 cars off of the road for a year. 

This model could also help South Africa significantly in sticking to its carbon emission reductions targets whilst supporting economic growth and a just energy transition.

Amazon, like other large corporate consumers of energy, have committed to aggressive renewable energy procurement targets – in their case, 100% by 2025. But the successful provision of renewable energy can only be provided in an environment that supports it. Recently, the Department of Minerals and Energy, NERSA and Eskom have become supportive of renewable energy generation, which has allowed for the approval of renewable power plants such as this. 

This is great news in light of the onslaught of load shedding in South Africa. Power generated from wheeling projects will increase the amount of IPPs and relieve the sole electricity provision burden on Eskom.

The support of renewable projects means the equal prioritisation of economic and social factors. The Adams project is more than 63% black owned, with investor Mahlako a Phahla Financial Services holding stakes in the project, who are committed to delivering returns for local black investors. SOLA is also 100% South African owned, including a 40% shareholding by black investor African Rainbow Energy and Power.

Renewable energy projects which take into account local development are able to develop South African skills and provide jobs. During construction, the Adams Solar Project created 167 jobs, 63% of them from the local surrounding area, and it will sustain permanent jobs for its lifetime in electrical maintenance, cleaning and security. Wooden waste generated during construction, including pallets and electrical cable drums, were donated to local furniture businesses and special skills schools, in order to further bolster the SMME contributions of the project. 

Although the Adams Project is just the start of an energy wheeling and trading landscape in South Africa, it’s indicative of where the picture is heading: toward a modernised grid with renewable energy at its core. It also demonstrates the willingness of the government and the private sector to work together on solving South Africa’s electricity crisis.

Read more about the project here.

What the 100 MW license cap lift means for your business

In June, amid much celebration, Cyril Ramaphosa announced that the amendment of Schedule 2 in the Electricity Regulation Act – a clause that has long had both producers and consumers of energy at loggerheads with government – was imminent. Today, the amendment was officially gazetted. However, what exactly does this amendment mean, and will it affect your business?

The Electricity Regulation Act of 2006 is an important piece of legislation that governs how electricity is generated and distributed in South Africa, and the roles of the various stakeholders involved. Schedule 2 used to specify that any electricity generation activity over 1 MW requires a generation licence. Essentially, this implied the same amount of paperwork for a huge coal-fired power plant as a rooftop solar system! The amendment to schedule 2 of the ERA means that this cap has now been lifted – which is great news for large energy consumers in South Africa.

What does the new Electricity Regulation Act Schedule 2 Amendment say?

In short, this amendment exempts certain activities from licencing and registration with the electricity regulator (Nersa). Such exemptions include:

  • Any generation facility without a connection to the grid
  • Any generation facility below 100 kW in size (provided it complies with standard connection codes);
  • Any generation facility with/without energy storage under 100 MW and either:
    • No wheeling;
    • A wheeling agreement (provided there’s a connection agreement between the generator and the transmitter of the power); or
    • No import or export on to the grid
  • Generation facilities that are used for demonstration purposes and will not be in operation for over 36 months
  • Existing generation facilities that were exempted from the requirement before the gazette need to register within 6 months, if it is compliant with the grid-code and connected to the grid.

This means that, essentially, electricity generation projects under 100 MW, whilst still needing to meet requisite grid-code compliance and normal permitting procedures, will not require a generation licence from Nersa.

This will mean that projects that have historically taken years to complete will now be able to be built much more quickly, thus providing private consumers of energy with power and alleviating South Africa’s electricity crisis. 

Are there still other permits required for electricity generation?

Yes, the relevant regulatory approvals are still required for self-generation. The main change under the new legislation is that projects between 1 – 100 MW will not require a Nersa generation licence, which are substantial and very complex licences to obtain. Historically, this meant that a project of 2 MW would require the same amount of paperwork as a large coal-generation facility (oven GW in size), and thus slowed the uptake of renewable energy quite dramatically. 

It’s important to note that the projects must still be registered with Nersa, in which the relevant grid approval documents and environmental approvals, amongst other documents, will be submitted. Nersa will review the documents over 60 business days before granting registration to the relevant projects.

If the client is part of the municipal grid network, they would still need to obtain the relevant permissions in order to self-generate. This is standard practice for all solar PV plants and is necessary to make sure that the municipality has oversight of how much their grid is likely to be loaded at a specific time. The capacity of the grid needs to be taken into consideration, and so weak grid areas are likely to remain constrained, regardless of legislation.

The gazetting of this ERA Schedule 2 amendment is incredibly positive and will make a big impact on the sentiment toward the Renewable Energy sector – both for the companies that supply renewable energy, as well as the large energy consumers.

What does the amendment say about energy storage? 

Whilst many large energy consumers choose to remain connected to the grid, as it allows the use of the cheapest form of energy at various times of the day (eg., solar during mid day, grid-supply during off-peak hours), there are increasing numbers of energy consumers that are using battery systems to supply them with power 24/7, which also prevents load shedding. The amendment includes energy storage provision – meaning that the licencing exemption applies to energy storage systems as well. 

Hybrid, “islandable” systems which act like on-grid systems, but automatically “island” during load-shedding, are also included in the provision. The opening of the self-generation threshold means that these islandable systems will be increasingly cost-effective, because larger solar PV systems can be built and their cheap power stored in batteries for dispatching during load shedding or the evenings. 

What is wheeling?

Wheeling is the transfer of energy from an independent power producer to a client via the grid. For our clients, this means that electricity can be generated in an area with lots of space and great solar resource, in order to supply an energy consumer that may not have the space or the solar resource available (such as our Amazon Wheeling project). Wheeling requires quite a few different licences, but the advantage of the generation threshold increase would mean that a Nersa generation licence would be one less piece of permitting required. 

Because of its affordability there is likely to be a great uptake of renewable energy with the ERA 2 amendment. We look forward to working with all relevant stakeholders to make this happen.

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.

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.

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.

Mining in africa

Why remote mines in Africa should be considering energy storage

There is no doubt that solar PV is the cheapest form of electricity generation globally. However, how does its application apply to remote mining operations? Africa is blessed with great solar resource, as well as mineral and metal resources – making mining an important industry on the continent. But remotely-located mining operations often mean that energy generation is an important concern. 

If a mining operation is located close to a utility grid, there could be an option to commission a new power line or grid connection to the mine. Whilst this may seem like an appealing option, there are many uncertainties in the creation of a new power line, and even in connecting to an existing one. How long will the powerline take to build? How will it be maintained and/or repaired when necessary? What would the costs be of such a connection? These questions need to be asked in conjunction with the political, regulatory and logistical risk considerations in taking on such an intervention. There is also the risk of the existing grid or utility being unreliable with frequent outages. 

Another consideration is the risk of using an outmoded form of technology, and what the implications of this might be for the future of your mining operation. Using mobile technology as an example, Africa has been able to leapfrog fixed line telecommunications straight to mobile phones, which has improved livelihoods on the continent substantially. A similar argument can be made for the fixed line electricity grid: decentralised electricity supply enable the opportunity to leapfrog outdated technology and maintenance that comes with fixed power lines to provide decentralised, reliable power. 

As such, many mines in Africa do rely on decentralised power, either in the form of diesel or solar PV. In addition to these decentralised power generation sources, battery storage is a great option to reduce costs and risks of power supply. 

Lithium Ion Battery Storage solar PV microgrid

The most common go-to option for remote mining solutions is diesel generation, due to its portability and reliability for remote mining operations. However, diesel is a costly option. Typically, diesel costs in African gold mining countries are around US$1 per litre of diesel – which translates to US 30c per kWh. This is in comparison to US 5c per kWh of solar PV electricity. Another consideration is the transportation of diesel to the mine site, which ironically is burning diesel to, in turn, burn more diesel. Despite the greenhouse gas emissions implications of this, it also adds an unnecessary layer of costs to the mining operation.

But is there another way? As mentioned above, many remote mines in Africa, whilst distanced to the utility grid and/or high-voltage grid connections, have fantastic solar resource. With the affordability of solar PV solutions, it makes sense to explore a solar PV system for mining operations in Africa. However, to provide power after hours and/or during the early hours of morning or late hours of evening, solar PV needs to be used in conjunction with a backup supply to keep the energy supply consistent. This might take the form of diesel generators, but energy storage – particularly in the form of lithium-ion batteries – is quickly becoming a less risky option. This is, in part, to the falling costs of energy storage technology. 

With costs of storage rapidly decreasing, energy storage provides a much more stable cost profile than grid-powered or diesel generated electricity, which both have unknown future cost fluctuations and risks. Similarly, the increased interest in electric vehicles, as well as global uptake of off-grid electricity, have sparked a sharp decline in battery costs.  

In addition, battery manufacturing capacity is expected to increase significantly by 2021 from just under 150 GWh/year in 2018 to 350 GWh/year in 2021, with the bulk of manufacturing taking place in China and the US. A similar forecast predicts an increase in manufacturing capacity from 350 GWh/year, to ~700 GWh/year. Similarly, the average battery plant manufacturing size has increased significantly, from around 10 GWh/year to just under 30 GWh/year. 

In conjunction with increased global demand and manufacturing capability, the costs of lithium-ion batteries have decreased significantly from 2013 – 2019, from around US$ 446 per kWh in 2013 to US$ 112 per kWh in 2019. 

Should the application of a solar PV and battery storage microgrid system be unfeasible for a mining operation, battery storage can still assist mining operations to save money by extending the life of generators by creating spinning reserve. This can create a ~2% diesel saving – or 2 MVA of batteries of spinning reserve could save ~260 000 litres of diesel.

A solar PV and energy storage microgrid ensures the control of power and energy sources. A high concentration of renewable energy, such as solar PV, in conjunction with storage, enables complete control of energy costs, eliminating logistics risks and price fluctuations. There are also various financing options available, such as buying the system outright or entering into a power purchase agreement. 
As mentioned, solar PV on the African continent is a no brainer. However, for remote mines, it may be necessary to install solar PV alongside battery storage solutions. Whilst solar PV saves money, energy storage solutions solve a few problems: they provide consistent energy supply and handle load changes, and also ensure that the costs of supplying power to the mining operation are known. This reduces much of the risk of electricity supply for both planned and existing mining operations.

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

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.