The power is off for the second time today, dogs are barking, kids are screaming and the alarm is beeping non-stop. Depending on who you ask it will end next month or next year. There are a few alternatives to Eskom power and today I’ll be looking at these alternatives with an emphasis on solar power to help you decide whether it is the right move for you. This will also help you specify the system you will need if you do decide to go solar.
This will be the cheapest option, but if you have kids it will become difficult to manage. Additionally, some of the higher load-shedding stages will become long enough for your freezer to start melting. Most of us will end up going this route, even if it is kicking and screaming.
This is the go-to option for most South Africans, probably because it is the easiest option. Simply buy the generator, plug it in and start it up. However, the running costs for generators are high. Diesel generators set you back about R3/kWh and petrol even more. It will also leave you and the neighbours with the soothing sound of a billion bees.
This is an interesting option that falls somewhere between buying a generator and installing solar panels. You buy a battery bank and inverter, which allows you to store electricity supplied by Eskom. When the power is on, the inverter converts the 220 V alternating current (AC) to 12 V direct current (DC). This can be stored by either lead-acid or lithium batteries. When the power is then switched off, the inverter converters the stored 12 V DC back to 220 V AC for consumption.
This storage system will set you back about R3 to R6/kWh. On top of this, you still need to pay for the units that come from Eskom. This makes it an expensive system. The biggest problem, however, is that your total consumption will not be reduced. You will simply consume more units when the power is on to compensate for when it is off. This nullifies the whole purpose of load-shedding.
This system is like the back-up battery system discussed above. However, it uses solar power to charge the batteries, instead of Eskom power. In South Africa, we have an abundance of sunshine, which is perfect for solar systems. Our irradiation varies between 4.8 kWh/m² per day in Pretoria, to 4.2 kWh/m² per day in Cape Town, as seen below.
So, what does this mean? Well, let’s calculate what my requirements will be, as an example. I live in Pretoria, with irradiation of 4.8 kWh/m² and consume about 11.5 kWh per day (aka units). My consumption is on the lower side since I already have a solar geyser and a gas stove. However, a lot of consumption is because of our air-con at night.
Firstly, we need to calculate the required solar panels. Typical efficiencies of solar panels are around 18%. So, if you want to generate 11.5 kWh, you need to be exposed to 64 kWh of irradiation (11.5kWh/18%). In Pretoria, where the irradiation is 4.8 kWh/m², I will need solar panels that cover 13.3 m² (64 kWh/4.8kWh/m²). If I buy 405 W Canadian Solar panels that cover just over 2 m² each, I will need 7 panels.
The next step is to buy an inverter, which is easy to specify. If I buy seven 405 W panels, that is 2 835 W combined. This requires a 3 kW inverter. It is often a good idea to buy a bigger inverter since it will determine whether your system can be expanded later.
I also need to determine the battery size. Of the 11.5 kWh we consume, about 6.5 kWh is during the night. So, we need to store at least that much power to ensure that we make it through the night. Since not all days will be sunny, it might be necessary to store even more.
What will this cost?
A basic 2.4 kW system (2.4 kW solar panels and 2.4 kW inverter) with about 8 kWh lead-acid batteries and installation will set you back just over R60 000. The installation is not rocket science, but you will need an electrical certificate. This system is slightly smaller than I require, but with a few adjustments, like buying a gas oven and limiting the air-con usage, we should be able to cope.
A bigger 4 kW system, with 8kWh lithium batteries, will set you back about R111 000. This system will definitely be able to supply our needs. The question now is whether it will be financially viable to install solar panels. Our electricity bill is about R660 a month. I also suspect that the Eskom electricity increases will be more than inflation at about 8% per year.
Lead-acid batteries tend to last about 4 years, while lithium batteries have typical lifespans of about 10 years. Solar panels, on the other hand, have great lifespans of up to 30 years. Lastly, I assumed that batteries will get cheaper at the same rate as inflation, to effectively cost the same going forward.
Is it worth it?
Even though the lead-acid batteries need to be replaced more often, they are significantly cheaper. Either way, it looks like the payback is just over 10 years. Granted, I did not really shop around for the cheapest price, but I don’t think the prices will vary more than 20%. The battery life will also vary depending on the brand you choose. So, call these ballpark figures.
The first thing that you need to decide is whether you will be living in your present home for another 15 years. Then you also need the upfront finances, which not everyone will have. For me, 12 years is just too long at this stage.
If you do decide to go the solar power route, make sure that it is a reputable dealer. If your documentation is not in order it might influence your insurance claim if something goes wrong. That being said, load-shedding is a big concern for a lot of us, especially businesses reliant on electricity. It’s going to take a while for Eskom to get their shit together, while we continue to have intermittent load-shedding.
You can either make the solar power investment now, wait till it becomes even cheaper or wait it out. Either way, I’m not leaving South Africa anytime soon, so will need to adapt. A special thanks to my friend Marnus who helped me with a lot of the information.
Be safe out there,
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