The solar revolution that hold the promise of powering the poor

This light, powered by solar energy, was a first in the informal settlement of Melusi, in the West of Pretoria. The initial roll out saw two homes set up with solar panels, a battery and inverter. Now the plan is for 60 homes to be powered by solar energy in Melusi. Professor David Everatt,

Across South Africa the solar revolution is being powered by the wealthy, the middle class and the private sector, but this could soon change if a group of academics and a community have their way.

In the informal settlement of Melusi, to the west of Pretoria, a pilot study is investigating whether cheap solar energy could be the game changer that will improve quality fo life, stimulate the local economy and bypass the local Council and link directly to Eskom.

If it works, other communities across the country could soon follow further, fuelling the revolution and bringing electricity to the poor – but at the same time, Eskom willing, selling excess power back to the grid for everyone’s benefit.

It is a simple system. A single solar panel charges a battery and with an inverter can power a couple of lights and cellphones.

Other panels can be added allowing for larger household appliances to be powered.

The plan is that the owner will pay off the system in monthly installments over two years. After that they can then buy another solar panel.

Professor David Everatt, Professor of Urban Governance and Principal Investigator for GRT-INSPIRED where Melusi sits, believes such an initiative is vital to stimulate economic growth within the poor echelons of society.

“The argument is you need to bypass the entire electric electrification phase, and move directly to solar, because government is spending billions still trying to electrify informal settlements,” he explains “Whereas if you go solar, you start with individuals being able to sell power and earn a living, shared micro-grids later become possible, where a group can share power to run for example a small workshop or hair salons and so on.”

Besides Wits University’s involvement, there are other partners that include the University of Johannesburg and Pretoria. Together the three universities form the Gauteng Research Triangle collaboration.

Everatt points out that even with a simple solar set-up the owner can create a sustainable livelihood where they can charge a cellphone for R10 or power up clippers or charge R20 for a haircut.

People may never get a “proper job” says Everatt, but this does not mean that they cannot earn a living, while supplying excess power to the national grid.

In the initial study, two houses were fitted out with solar panels and a battery, in an effort to test the concept and technology. In contrast with commentary at the time with no panels, batteries or inverters have been stolen or damaged, and both enhancing quality of life and providing an income earning source.

Now part two of the project is to roll out solar to 60 households. Professor Willie Cronje of Wit’s School of Electrical and Informational Engineering is working on the design of the system and is currently trying to get the costing right for the basic solar power set up.

“We are exploring what is acceptable and we are aiming at R200 a month. This would replace the direct costs of candles and lighting. The system lasts five years or more and you will be able to pay it off in two. Then is it yours,” Cronje explains.

Over time the system can be scaled up to power a fridge or a TV. Embedded smart technology will lock the system is the user doesn’t pay. The plan is for the community leaders to assist in the collection of payments.

Kenny Malafa acts as the liaison between the community and the researchers. So far he says it is mostly businesses that are looking at the solar system.

“At the moment shop owners are the ones showing interest in solar. It is the spaza shop owners and taverns, who wants to run fridges off solar.”

Many of the residents use illegal connections to power their homes and businesses. They pay a once-off fee of between R800 and R1000 to get connected. The problem is that these connections are dangerous and unreliable and are also subject to load shedding. South Africa is not the only African country looking at solar in Kenya there have been similar initiatives in the slums around Kenya.

A big difference between South Africa and Kenya, says Everatt, is that the East African is using cellphones as a payment mechanism, and which is easier and safer to manage.

Just recently the City of Cape Town announced plans to soon enable residents and businesses to sell excess power to the grid at an approved feed-in tariff. It is an initiative that would most likely benefit those who are resourced to and have forked out for larger solar installations.

Once Melusi is jacked up with solar panels there is nothing, believes Cronje, stopping the informal settlement from also selling excess electricity to the council or Eskom. Electricity could even be traded with neighbours or bartered for other goods. A process where communities evolve into creating their own independent micro grids can evolve with support. But for Everatt besides the financial aspect of electrical power there is an important social value to getting communities like Melusi electrified.

“Sor for me a fridge means you can keep your medicines fresh, it means you can change your eating habits, you don’t have to walk  to a tuck shop and buy hyper processed foods, you can actually keep foods that will stay fresh for a couple of days. So your children eat better. They study by light not candles. They are not breathing kerosome fumes. It is the knock on effect rather than the immediate,” he says.

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