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Nationwide 'shortage' of solar panels, storage batteries as demand spikes

Mar 22 2019 12:11
Melanie Gosling, Fin24

Eskom’s rolling blackouts have led to a huge spike in demand for solar panels and storage batteries – and a country-wide shortage of both as suppliers battle to meet demand. 

Echoing the Day Zero scramble for rain water tanks and 25 litre water containers early last year during Cape Town’s water crisis, South Africa’s energy crisis is spurring those residents across the country who can afford it to try to go solar.

Richard Alkemade, who owns a national solar PV supplier and installer company Blue Planet Power with its head office in Knysna said on Thursday, “This week we did our entire turnover for last year. It’s unprecedented.” Alkemade said his orders had increased “ten-fold” because of load-shedding. 

“This week has been outrageously busy. There is a huge demand and a stock shortage in the country. I have more than 1000 lithium ion batteries on order from the factory in Cape Town which on average makes about 20 per day.” Lithium ion batteries are both imported and manufactured locally by three companies. 

'Ramping up production'

“They will be ramping up production, but there is only so much they can produce. Regarding installations, we can do three or four a day, but my orders for installations have increased ten-fold this week.” 

Alkemade said currently he had enough supplies to cover orders, but some orders would have to be “pushed out by eight to 10 weeks”.

Alkemade said Eskom’s severe power cuts had led people who could afford it to try to find out other electricity sources and were choosing one of three methods: small generators, solar panels or UPS – an uninterrupted power supply from a battery that stores Eskom power for use when needed. 

“For many people there is a pressing need for them to keep on running regardless of power cuts, so they are looking at solar panels and batteries not to save electricity costs or the environment, but just so they can carry on. Generators are generally not such a good option, particularly with fuel supply shortages,” Alkemade said. 

'Telephones ringing off the hook'

Estelle Hodgeson of Specialised Solar Systems in George said their telephones had not stopped ringing for a week. 

“It’s chaos! We are absolutely swamped. We’re getting requests not just from George but from all over the country, people begging us for supplies. We are quite a big firm so we’ve got stock now but are running out. It’s just flying off the shelves. It’s crazy,” Hodgeson said. 

Peter Bergs from the same firm said they were experiencing “tremendous difficulty” in obtaining stock. 

“It’s obviously putting us all on the back foot because demand is outstripping supply. And that’s for a combination of equipment we need to do installations. There has been a huge increase since the load-shedding,” Bergs said. 

Richard Smart from Treetops Renewable Energy Systems in Cape Town said they had also experienced an increase in demand.

“People started with solar long ago, but demand increased when the price of electricity started going up and now increasing more because of load-shedding,” he said. 

Alkemade said a 330w solar panel cost around R2 200. The average cost of a lithium battery and inverter was R50 000. 

“We install between six to 12 panels and you then get a system which is pretty autonomous.” 

Cost is a Barrier

But some customers found the panels plus the battery too expensive, so there was now a demand just for batteries and inverters. The batteries can be charged with Eskom power when there was electricity, and then used to power some household appliances during the rolling blackouts.  

“When there is load-shedding, you can use the Eskom power stored in the battery to keep the lights on and the TV and Wi-Fi and maybe the kettle, but not the geyser and stove and underfloor heating.” 

What this in effect means is that consumers will be using more Eskom power in order to charge their batteries, to draw on during load-shedding later on. The average charged battery could give up to four hours supply. 

Some customers had chosen this for now during the energy crisis, and would have the option of installing solar panels later. 

“People are doing it in bite-sized bits, planning to add solar later. It’s not about getting your money back on a system, or saving costs. It’s more of an insurance policy, so that you can be autonomous. Realistically it would take eight years to get back what you paid,” said Alkemade. 

'See saw' Prices

Davin Chown, chair of the SA Photovoltaic Industry Association (Sapvia) said the cost of PV solar panels had seen a “see-saw” in prices but had been dropping on average around 10% to 20% in price. 

“The total installed system had declined by about 10%. The panels that were put on rooftops two years ago have now got a bigger brother that is more efficient and costs less. This is happening at a very rapid pace,” Chown said. 

He said there was no “one size fits all” in solar power installation, and consumers should get a professional to work out what their electricity consumption was, where they could reduce, and what they needed. 

Chown said it was a foregone conclusion that Eskom tariffs would increase, and at the same time the supply was under pressure, so it made sense for consumers to install PV panels which could supply all or some of their electricity needs. 

Breaking the Bank

“Now many banks are allowing people to bond their solar system, so there is not that massive capital outlay. It’s starting to allow South Africans to be able to afford their own electricity systems and it doesn’t break the bank,” Chown said.

It was illegal to have an unregistered power system on a roof. These must be registered with the municipality. SAPVIA issued “green cards” to registered installers that met the requirements of having the technical knowledge and good equipment. 

“These people have been properly checked out and vetted so that you don’t get fly-by-nights or someone who has changed the logo on his bakkie from ‘Bob’s Hotdogs’ to ‘Bob’s Solar Systems’.    



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