Ina Opperman

By Ina Opperman

Business Journalist

Watch: Sick of load shedding? Follow these steps to go solar

It looks like load shedding is never going to end and it is time to look for alternatives, such as solar power, but where do you begin?

South Africans are sick of load shedding after a few weeks of losing power at least three times a day and more and more are considering going solar. However, solar can also leave you in the dark if the system is not good enough.

“With South Africa experiencing its worst year of load shedding to date, we see a surge in demand for alternative power solutions from homeowners and businesses. Solar is emerging as a popular option, enabling people to reduce their reliance on Eskom at a time the utility is asking the regulator to approve a 32% increase in power tariffs,” says Christiaan Hattingh, MD of energy solutions provider AWPower.

He warns that protecting your home or business from power outages and rising electricity costs is a major investment, but says the payback will be worthwhile, provided you do your homework and select a solution that is tailored to your needs.

You also need to be careful of a number of pitfalls, from poorly specced systems to fly-by-night installers.

ALSO READ: Banks face avalanche of demand from customers trying to ditch Eskom and go solar

You can ensure that you head in the right direction by following these steps that Hattingh suggests:

Optimise your electricity usage

Before looking into alternative and backup power solutions, first try to reduce the amount of electricity you use, such as switching to a gas hob and oven, replacing your lights with energy-efficient LED light bulbs and finding some with battery backup that can give you light during load shedding.

Determine your goals

The next step is to think about exactly what you want from a backup or alternative power solution, he says.

Is your primary goal to have a reliable power supply for some lights, computers and a TV during load shedding? Or do you mostly care about reducing your monthly electricity bill? The answers to these questions will determine how you will prioritise your solar investment.

Hattingh says if your goal is to save money, you can start by putting in place solar panels and an inverter. Solar panels will pay for themselves in electricity savings over a number of years, but with a grid-tied solar system, your solar power will not work during load shedding. You can add batteries at a later stage if your budget is limited.

If your immediate priority is to have electricity supply during outages, you can begin with lithium-ion batteries and a hybrid inverter, adding solar panels over time. Batteries are pricey and the more you install, the slower the payback period will be, but it will be worth it once you start seeing how you generate your own power, he says.

“We recommend lithium-ion batteries over lead-acid (deep cycle AGM) batteries because they have a long lifespan.”

ALSO READ: The impact of load shedding on insurance

Know the jargon

Going completely off-grid means a solution that completely frees you from reliance on Eskom, as you generate all your own power. “In our experience, specifying solar panels, generators and battery storage that provide complete grid-independence is too expensive to be practical for most small businesses or homes.”

A grid-tied system is connected to the municipal or Eskom grid and your solar power will stop flowing during an outage for the safety of electricians working on the line. The more solar panels you install, the more your solar system will cater for your daytime electricity consumption. You can use batteries to provide power when there is an outage.

Measure your power consumption

Hattingh suggests that you do an energy audit to understand exactly what size system you will require. You can use your monthly electricity bill to give your installation partner a guideline, but a far more accurate approach is to have an energy meter installed and have it run for a week or two to get data about your typical power usage during the day and night.

He says you must also keep winter and summer months in mind as they differ in energy consumption and it depends where you are located.

ALSO READ: The inconvenience of load shedding: Here’s how to finance solar energy systems

Think about your budget and financing 

Once you understand how much power you consume, you can start looking at your budget, Hattingh says. Accessing funding to pay for your solar installation is an important consideration and there are a few specialist financing solutions for residential solar.

However, his recommendation is to use your access bond if you have one as your monthly savings on your electricity bill will offset at least some of the interest on the money you took from your bond.

You can also use the AWPower solar calculator to get a better understanding of how much it costs.

Size your system and plan an upgrade path

Hattingh says you should not be surprised if you find that you cannot afford to pay for a complete solar solution all at once.

“The good news is that you can take a phased approach to spread the costs over time. If your priority is to save money on electricity, you can start with solar panels and an inverter, adding more panels and batteries over time.”

Otherwise, you can start with a hybrid inverter and batteries to protect yourself from load shedding, then add solar panels later, but plan your upgrade path to reduce the risk that you will encounter compatibility problems down the road. Some products, for example, may be discontinued in future years and therefore you must work closely with your installer to choose the right components for your needs.

ALSO READ: Load shedding: A step-by-step plan for ditching Eskom and going off grid

Choosing an installation partner

The advice of a solar installation company can be invaluable. Look for a company with qualified electricians and engineers on its team, preferably specialists in renewable energy, Hattingh says. Their qualified electricians should be registered with the departments of energy and labour and they should be able to offer you flexible and realistic proposals about how you can achieve your goals.

Also ensure that they work with high-quality vendors that back their products up with long warranties and guarantees.

“Their track record is another important consideration. Some things to look out for include an established, multi-year track record with a list of contactable references, a strong commitment to aftersales service and generous warranties.”

The PACE allows one to interact with the grid and access power from one’s hybrid rooftop solar system. Picture: Supplied

Get it installed and signed off

After installation is complete, a professional engineer (prEng) who is registered with the Engineering Council of South Africa, must sign off the installation if it is grid-connected.

Your system must also be registered with the municipality or local authority and your installation partner can help you choose and design a system with the correct equipment. The City of Cape Town, for example, has an approved inverter list that you can use as a guideline.

ALSO READ: How to choose and insure the right electricity backup system

Remember to insure the system

As a fixture to your home, your solar installation will fall under your home buildings policy. You have to let your insurer know about it to ensure that it will be covered if your panels get torn off your roof by the wind or if a bolt of lightning fries the system.

Hattingh says you must also check whether your insurer has any additional requirements for insuring the system, such as asking you to install a lightning arrestor. However, your insurance will not cover you for loss and damage due to wear and tear over the years, which is why it is important to choose high-quality products backed up by a five to 10-year warranty.

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