Off the grid

2011-06-29 00:00

WHAT prompted Daniel Bailey to look into alternative energy­ sources when he and his family moved into their home in Winterskloof in 2010 was the cost of municipal electricity. “The Msun- duzi Municipality wanted R3 000 just for a deposit on a municipal electrical connection, before we had used any electricity. That clinched it for me — it was time to go solar. I had some experience of this energy source as my aunt and uncle ran a solar business in Maseru. There’s huge demand for alternative power in Lesotho, especially for lighting and water heating.”

The Baileys’ two-bedroomed home is powered by a combination of solar power, gas and a generator. “The solar-electric 12-volt system we installed runs our lights, computers, security lighting, and a range of small kitchen appliances. The security gate also has its own dedicated solar system. We use gas for running the fridge, stove, and space heating. The washing machine runs off a generator (when needed) because it needs more power to run than our system can provide. We also use LED lighting, which is more expensive to buy, but lasts longer than compact fluorescent lighting (CFL) and doesn’t contain mercury. The mercury in CFLs creates havoc in landfills and pollutes natural resources. Our water is heated by a solar­ water heater using vacuum-tube technology.

“If you use solar power, you have to have a backup in case there is not enough sunlight to charge your batteries. We have plenty of grey days in the midlands, so energy backup is essential. We also have a wood-burning donkey boiler to heat water if we need it,” he explained.

Proponents of sustainable development and education for sustainable development emphasise that for human survival on this planet there is a key requirement — behaviour change. They stress that we have to change the way we live in order for future generations just to stay alive, let alone enjoy a comfortable lifestyle. The Baileys concur.

“Yes, we have deliberately chosen to live a simpler lifestyle. We have no TV or dishwasher. Our daughter watches DVDs on a laptop computer. It is true that people have to adapt their way of life. Middle-class income earners in particular have to be realistic about choosing alternative energy. To run a huge home with multiple energy-heavy appliances like flat-screen TVs, a dishwasher, washing machine and underfloor heating, would require a huge bank of solar batteries.

“However, it’s an absolute certainty that we all have to shift away from lifestyles dependent on fossil fuels because it’s clear that not only is this unsustainable in the long term, but it’s becoming cost-ineffective and unreliable. For example, the government cannot even secure the coal supply to its own power stations. In the Hilton area, it’s even worse because of the state of the municipality and the power infrastructure. It really­ makes sense to move away from relying on municipal electricity­.

“If you add up what households spend on electricity in a year, you could convert that to an alternative source and it would probably cost the same at the very worst, and you’d have a reliable supply too. My system costs less than what I would have paid for electricity in one year and now my electricity is free. It’s worth considering solar power as a back-up to coal-powered electricity because the supply is so unreliable, or as a top-up to reduce the amount of municipal or Eskom power people consume. Eskom, for example, is offering a rebate to consumers who convert their water heating to solar power as this reduces the strain on the power grid.

“The cost of the equipment needed to convert a home to solar power has come down a lot since we installed our system, so it really makes sense for families to consider this option now. Solar power is more common now than when we first explored it, so it’s also easier to convert. There are several outlets now supplying equipment in Pietermaritzburg and the midlands, which also makes it more convenient and cheaper than it used to be.”

The Baileys’ advice to people interested in exploring this option is: “Do research first. People don’t need to look further than the Internet, where there is all the information they need. The first question to ask is: ‘How much power do you use every­ day?’ You need to know how much energy it takes to power your daily routine. There are sites with solar calculators that will use your electricity consumption to calculate what size solar-electric system you require to meet your family’s daily energy needs. If you find it’s too much, then this is the time to consider downscaling your power needs and making lifestyle changes, or looking into a system that combines different energy sources.

“The other essential element to consider is backup. If you go for solar energy, what if there is no sun for several days? Even if it’s just for lighting and cooking, you need to have a backup plan like gas or a generator. With the electricity-tariff increases, it really makes sense to convert. People around the world are becoming more aware of the lifestyle changes needed in order for planetary survival and the survival of their children. Now they have to take the leap and make the change. Solar power is a viable option for this sunny country.”

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