How To ... Get off the grid

2013-02-10 10:00

Eskom’s heavy pricing is forcing more and more people to generate their own electricity, but green power doesn’t come cheap either, writes Yolandi Groenewald

With a 16% power-price hike looming, many South Africans have wondered how to rid themselves of Eskom and live “off the grid”.

Others simply want to rid their consciences of Eskom’s heavy carbon emissions. The power utility has the heaviest coal dependence in the world and generates 90% of its power with it.

According to the UN Environmental Programme, South Africa is the world’s third-best location for generating solar power, making solar panels a good option for households wishing to generate their own electricity.

But is it possible to say adiós to Eskom and generate your own electricity without robbing a bank in the process?

Definitely, said regular South Africans this week. You don’t need to be a billionaire, but it is still a hefty investment and government won’t help you much.

But how do you start?

The first step would be to turn your home into the leanest, greenest, most energy-efficient machine it can be.

Dr Anthony Keen has been working on his home for many years to reduce his electricity consumption. But he only installed photovoltaic panels, an inverter and batteries four years ago, a move that made a clean break with Eskom possible.

Keen, a medical doctor and former lecturer at the University of Cape Town’s medical school, bought his solar water geyser 28 years ago.

After that he reduced his energy use by 71% by switching to more efficient lights, painting his roof white, installing a solar geyser, insulating his house better and cooking with gas.

Brenda Martin, director of NGO Project 90x2030, says there are so many ways to cut energy use before you even spend a cent – simply by being more energy conscious. For example, don’t leave cellphone chargers plugged in and switch off lights when you leave a room.

The next step is to install a solar geyser, the installation of which is subsidised by Eskom, and which she says can “cut your bill by up to 40%”.

But if you can’t install a solar geyser because your roof isn’t suitable, or if your residential complex forbids them, install a heat pump.

Other steps to take include installing compact fluorescent lights and solar-powered pool pumps, which Eskom also has a retrofit programme for.

Keen says while it is easy for the average household to reduce their dependence on Eskom, it is more difficult to cut yourself off from the grid completely.

Solar power only works when the sun shines and expensive batteries are needed to store the energy generated during the day so that your house is not plunged into darkness at night.

He installed 20 photovoltaic panels with a total output of 3.8 kilowatts, a 6 kilovolt-ampere inverter and a lead acid battery bank of 24 12-volt batteries.

“We’re planning to see if we can reduce even the last bit of Eskom power and gas to be replaced by stored solar power,” he says.

“That gets expensive because of the batteries, but just reducing your reliance on Eskom can be done quickly and cheaply today with solar and without batteries.”

Although cost is certainly a problem, some ordinary South Africans are determined to make the effort.

Anthea Torr has been living in Noordhoek, Cape Town, almost off the grid, for the past nine years. But for the past seven months she has managed to wean her household completely off it.

An environmental activist, she is passionate about not using nuclear power provided by Eskom. She installed the photovoltaic solar panels on her roof quite a few years ago and estimates the whole process cost her R100?000.

She also had to fork out R40?000 this year for the storage batteries. Torr financed her dream and still pays off the investment every month.

“But on the plus side, solar is much cheaper now than it was then,” she says. “This has been a wonderful project and so empowering. But it is ongoing and I’m still learning.”

Torr is very conscious of her energy use. She cooks with biogas she produces from her own gas digester – a device that uses animal and human excrement to produce fuel for cooking – and she went to great lengths to find the most energy-efficient fridge on the market.

“I’ve never run out of power and, if I do, the sun will simply produce more,” she says.

She uses her electric washing machine, but only washes with cold water.

Torr also tried a wind turbine on her roof – which is able to power the house when the sun disappears – but alas the Noordhoek gales were too much for it and it fell off.

First prize for South Africans looking to generate their own electricity would be to feed back into the grid during the day when they are producing power, and buy back the energy needed at night from Eskom, which would cut out the need for expensive batteries.

Unfortunately, this option is not yet available in South Africa and, when Eskom does allow it, you’ll have to prove to them that the electricity you are feeding into the grid is safe.

Keen has signed on to a pilot project with the City of Cape Town for a connection from his rooftop photovoltaic network to the city’s electricity grid.

“The city makes a good profit from the sale of electricity and is reluctant to give this up by letting consumers generate their own,” he says.

Martin says the biggest obstacle to generating your own clean electricity is the huge upfront cost and the lack of financial incentives to encourage households who can afford it to invest in clean technology.

What it’ll set you back

»?Solar panels: at least 20 x 200w solar panels at about R2?500 a pop – R50?000

»?Solar storage batteries: 30 x 12 volt lead acid batteries at R1?500 each – R45?000

»?Charge controller/ regulator: R8?000

»?DC-AC inverter – R20?000. Solar panels produce direct current (DC) and most appliances and equipment are designed to be powered by alternating current (AC). An inverter is used to convert the direct current from the photovoltaic solar panels or battery into alternating current which is used in homes.

»?Wind turbine: 1 x 3?000 watt turbine – R65?000

»?Plus installation costs

How to get off the grid

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