South Africa’s ‘silent revolution’ as those with money go solar

  • Electricity crisis drives South Africans to solar PV
  • The cost barrier widens the gap between rich and poor
  • Failure to resell a missed opportunity to the network

JOHANNESBURG, Aug 15 (Reuters) – Thanks to his rooftop solar panels, Pierre Moureau only notices the power cuts that regularly plunge South Africans into darkness when complaints arise on the WhatsApp group in his Johannesburg neighborhood.

“I have a certain standard of living,” said the 68-year-old financial planner, who likes to relax in his sauna at home. “I want to be able to live as I am.”

As a deepening electricity crisis hampers Africa’s most industrialized economy, sparking public anger, President Cyril Ramaphosa has vowed to cut red tape to boost the use of renewable energy by coal-dependent South Africa.

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But many South Africans are not waiting for government action and their impatience has led to a boom in small-scale solar installations.

“I can’t be without electricity. It’s as simple as that,” said Moureau, whose panels power his home as well as his adjoining office. “Every minute I’m down costs me money.”

In the first five months of this year alone, South Africa imported photovoltaic solar panels worth nearly 2.2 billion rand ($135 million), according to a Reuters analysis of customs data. . That’s more than 500 megawatts of peak generation capacity, analysts said.

Once installed, the panels will increase the estimated existing 2.1 gigawatts of small-scale solar generation capacity by about 24%, exceeding what the government has managed to procure in a decade of its utility-scale solar strategy.

“The government does not at all recognize the size of an industry it has become,” said Frank Spencer, spokesman for the South African Photovoltaic Industry Association. “It’s a silent revolution.”

It is also a missed opportunity.

In a country that needs 4 to 6 gigawatts of extra generation to end widespread blackouts, known locally as load shedding, most systems are unregistered and don’t feed anything back into the failing grid. electricity.

And their high cost means, for now at least, that they are only a solution for the relatively well-off, deepening into what is already one of the most unequal societies in the world.

“If you have the money, you can do it yourself,” said Solly Silaule, who like nearly half of South Africans is unemployed. “But the people who are suffering don’t have the money to buy these panels.”


Despite abundant solar and wind resources, the South African government has been reluctant to embrace renewable energy. Until its relaunch in 2021, pressure from mining unions had caused a program of large-scale private projects to be frozen for years.

But the decline of Eskom, a debt-ridden electricity utility that generates 80% of its electricity from coal, has increased the urgency of finding alternatives.

Tabi Tabi was the direct witness. In just one month last year, his solar company, Granville Energy, received 349 inquiries for rooftop systems.

“Over the last, I would say 24 months, we’ve seen a continuous month-over-month increase in demand,” he said. “We are seeing interest at all levels.”

When one of his customers, Leigh Driemel, decided to install a 42-panel system at his swimming academy last year, his monthly electricity bill was around R26,000 and the blackouts Power had begun to force her to cancel classes.

“We were going to end up charging R300 for a swimming lesson,” she said. “Who is going to pay for this? Our margins have steadily tightened.

She is now insulated against power outages and has reduced her electricity bill by more than 40%.

Across South Africa, private residents as well as businesses large and small make similar calculations.

Cheaper photovoltaic solar panels and batteries, plus the relaxation last year of regulations that required government approval for systems larger than 1 megawatt, bolster the case for self-generated solar power .

“Everyone is saying ‘Okay, we’ve had enough. We need a solution,'” said Mark Evans, director of Partners in Performance, a South African business consultancy.


Proponents of small-scale solar power say South Africa still has a long way to go.

On a wall in Granville Energy’s main office, large screens show the amount of energy produced by customers’ solar systems in real time. After fully charging its battery, one house used only 20% of its production capacity.

“It’s sad and unfortunate that we’re wasting so much capacity,” Tabi said.

Announcing his planned reforms last month, Ramaphosa said Eskom would establish a pricing structure to allow those with solar panels to resell electricity they don’t need to the utility, a common practice in many country.

As things stand, relatively few South African solar users are feeding electricity into the grid, and industry insiders say most small-scale systems have not been declared to authorities, despite the legal obligation to register them.

In Johannesburg alone, it is estimated that there are more than 20,000 unregistered solar systems, most of them residential, an official from the city’s power utility said.

In the absence of attractive tariffs, these customers are disconnecting more and more.

“They are lost to the energy system forever,” the official, who requested anonymity, told Reuters. “It’s far better to keep them on the network, to be part of a working community on the network.”

A fair feed-in tariff could encourage more South Africans to register and plug in their systems and give Eskom a break.

But that probably won’t do much to overcome the main hurdle for most potential rooftop solar customers: cost.

While banks are starting to help, with ABSA (ABSPp.J) and Nedbank (NEDJ.J) offering dedicated small-scale solar finance products, rooftop systems remain out of reach for most poor South Africans like Prince Mkhize.

He works at a car wash in Alexandra, the low-income, high-crime township just across a busy highway from Sandton – Johannesburg’s financial district dubbed “Africa’s wealthiest square mile”.

When power cuts hit, Mkhize can’t get his jet wash or vacuum to work and watches disappointed potential customers come and go.

“We stay here for eight hours without cars,” he said. “When there is shedding, there is no work.”

($1 = R16.2430)

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Reporting by Joe Bavier and Promit Mukherjee; edited by Barbara Lewis

Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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