Could Solar Be the Answer to South Africa's Utility Woes?

In January, South African President Jacob Zuma explained to the World Economic Forum, “our electricity infrastructure…was never designed to serve an expanded citizenry.”

This electricity expansion had been excluded in the past and, coupled with a growing economy, has put pressure on infrastructure, which needs improved maintenance and expansion.

South Africa already suffers from a low currency rate and high levels of unemployment, so it is time to look elsewhere for a reliable power source. Solar power has the potential to drastically change its energy landscape. According to the South African Department of Energy, the country is one of the most abundant places for solar energy in the world.

Through the South African Renewable Energy Initiative (SARi), the South African government, renewable energy associations, and partner countries, South Africa has been creating the legislative, social and monetary infrastructure needed in order to exponentially increase the use of renewables within the country. However, the current efforts to explore funding mechanisms for solar panels should be expanded.

The country finds itself in the perfect position for widespread solar implementation. In a December 2014 press release the Department of Human Settlements noted that, they have “identified 50 priority projects that will deliver more than 10 000 housing opportunities each. This will be a combination of Breaking New Ground (BNG) houses, affordable bonded houses, rental and serviced sites.” These projects represent the best opportunity for solar power. While the country and Eskom struggle to maintain the infrastructure needed to maintain a constant flow of electricity, roof top solar panels tied directly to the buildings they serve could provide a solution for both the short and long terms.

Additionally, solar could prove to be a buffer for businesses and industry at times of peak demand and when load shedding is implemented. In a recent interview, “the Steel and Engineering Industries Federation of South Africa (Seifsa) [said] the manufacturing industry contracted by 2.5 percent last year as a result of power cuts by Eskom… Seifsa says the disrupted power supply led to a contraction of between five and 13 percent in the rubber, structured steel and general purpose machinery sub industries.”

Although solar would not necessarily provide enough power to keep an industrial site completely up and running, it could provide enough of a backup to allow plants to continue functioning in some capacity instead of immediately shutting down.

While South Africa cannot, and should not, turn to a grid reliant only on solar power, the country should begin to immediately ramp up programs of wide spread implementation for housing developments and industrial sites. All future infrastructure adjustments within the nation should be made to capitalize on the country’s renewable energy supply in order to shift load away from Eskom and begin to wean consumers off of a reliance on unreliable coal-generated electricity and the ageing infrastructure that it depends on. 

Lead image: South Africa map via Shutterstock

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