Solar in South Africa: major cost savings and shorter payback periods

Chief Technical Officer Chris Sachse ( B.Eng – Electrical Engineering, Honours – Technology Management) speaks to JSE Quarterly publication about the challenges and opportunities present in the solar industry in South Africa.

In your opinion, what opportunities currently exists for solar energy exploitation in SA?

The solar industry in South Africa is still in its infancy compared to countries like Germany, especially in areas such as rules and regulation of small-scale and residential solar (100kW and below). The advantage South Africa has over the majority of European countries is the high levels of solar radiation and relatively mild temperatures, specifically in Gauteng and the surrounding areas. What this means is that solar systems in South Africa can be up to 40% smaller than a system in Germany and still produce the same energy. This results in major cost savings and shorter payback periods. Taking all of this into account, as well as the current energy crises the country finds itself in, my opinion is that there are a vast majority of opportunities with small-scale and residential solar industries in South Africa.

What opportunities are there for growth in this sector?

As mentioned earlier, South Africa is still lacking in rules and regulation governing small-scale solar systems, particularly regulation with regards to feeding energy back into the grid, but as they say, every cloud has a silver lining. The silver lining in this instance is that South Africa has been focusing on self-storage and self-consumption, a trend which is becoming more and more popular across the world due to the complications caused by multiple small sources feeding into the grid from different locations. Thus the ever-increasing cost of electricity together with the decreasing cost of solar can and, I believe, will result in a large boom within the solar industry and if done with the correct balance of self-storage and grid feeding, South Africa has the potential to stabilize the grid as well as become one of the leading nations with regards to solar energy.

What opportunities are there for partnerships between large and small companies to advance the uptake?

There is a place for all kinds of companies within the solar industry, large to small. One of the major concerns with the solar industry is that every second person thinks that they can become a solar engineer overnight. This results in people losing their hard earned money to someone promising one thing and the system doing something else, which can result in the industry reputation being tarnished. I believe the best way forward is for larger companies, like Sinetech, to take on the responsibility to train and educate both the public and small companies in solar and solar systems and to forge lifelong partnerships that would benefit both parties and result in a win-win situation for all, including the public.

Have you seen much of a change in solar energy uptake in recent years / for example, how has customer demand changed, and what sort of products are being sought?

Solar energy (especially PV technology) is becoming more and more popular. People are realizing the advantages it holds with regards to cost saving, reliability of supply as well as the positive environmental impact. With the recent increase in loadshedding, the demand for solar power has increased dramatically, especially for products that can provide the cost savings of solar together with battery backup in the event of load-shedding, giving clients the best of both worlds.