Against the backdrop of severe economic pressure and an unreliable electricity supply, the local uptake of sustainable energy is gaining rapid momentum with solar power, in particular, proving key to unlocking the economic recovery that South Africa so desperately needs.
This is according to Manie de Waal, CEO of EP Solar – a division of Energy Partners and part of the PSG group of companies – who says that an increasing number of businesses in the commercial and industrial (C&I) sector are turning to small-scale embedded solar generation to reduce their operational costs and ensure business continuity.
“While this shift to solar is in line with international trends, never before has the drive to restore an economy been more aligned with the benefits of sustainable energy,” he notes. “For local businesses battling the harsh economic aftermath of COVID-19 amid the reintroduction of loadshedding, solar power has become imperative to the reliability of their production continuity and cost efficiency. The result has been an accelerated adoption of sustainable energy across the entire economic value chain.”
To illustrate the benefit that C&I solar energy offers businesses at virtually every point in the value chain, De Waal uses the example of businesses in the agricultural value chain, which have already embraced the benefits of renewables.
“At the very start of the sequence, we have a farming business like the Du Toit Group, which specialises in the cultivation of fruit in the Western Cape. Most notably, this company has turned to solar energy to provide electricity for a significant portion of their operations in regions like the Breede River Valley.”
From there, De Waal says one can simply look at the next point in the agri value chain to begin to understand the versatility of solar energy. “In many cases, cold storage is a vital next step towards bringing the produce to the consumer. SAFT Cold Harvest is a sterling example of the capability of solar energy to add value. Refrigeration is an ideal candidate for solar power as these facilities need to be in full operation for 24 hours a day, seven days a week, which requires a significant amount of energy.”
He explains that by installing a 983kWp solar facility at one of its cold stores, which took over the bulk of the daytime power demand, SAFT Cold Harvest was able to reduce dependence on the national power grid during the most expensive usage hours.
From there, De Waal says that food processing operations, such as Novo Fruit Packers, take over. “Even though this type of facility may not have the same level of energy demand than the previous entry on our list, solar power still provides significant savings in operational costs. In the case of Novo Fruit Packers, the company introduced a new 734kWp solar generation plant in July of this year, which will also reduce its energy costs significantly in the months and years to come.”
Even the packaging component of the value chain can be included in the list of operations that draw massive benefit from solar, he adds. “Notable packaging company, Mpact already started its campaign to incorporate renewable energy into their operations in 2017, with the installation of a 750kWp solar PV plant at its Versapak Paarl facility.
“Lastly, there is the retailer, and Pick n Pay comes to mind as a strong case for solar in the retail space,” says De Waal, noting that this retailer boasts one of the largest single rooftop solar Power Purchase Agreements (PPAs) in Africa at its Longmeadow Distribution Centre. “This 2.4MWp PV system at Pick n Pay’s Longmeadow Distribution Centre still sets multiple benchmarks in the rapidly growing C&I solar industry in Africa.”
Despite their varying positions in the value chain, De Waal highlights one thing that the majority of these businesses have in common. “Almost all of these facilities acquired their embedded generation facilities as part of solar PPAs,” he says, noting the numerous advantages this offers. “First and foremost, the operation, ownership and maintenance of the systems are taken over by dedicated service providers while the business only pays for the power that it uses.
“Secondly, as PPA providers increase their footprint in a given area, the support and benefits increase significantly. Municipalities in many regions, are also amenable to local businesses generating their own power, and have feed-in tariff structures in place to accommodate PPAs.”
With these economies of scale in mind, De Waal notes that there is still room for solar to grow in South Africa. “With so many businesses desperate to get back to their old production volumes, widespread solar generation is a solution that carries great promise. This explains the recent surge of interest locally, which shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon,” he concludes.