Loadshedding: here are your options

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Loadshedding is likely to be with us for years to come and it may get worse. Photo of Koeberg nuclear power station: Brent Meersman

Loadshedding is likely to be with us for years to come and it may get worse. South Africans have every reason to complain about Eskom. But after complaining, households have to decide what to do to best cope with loadshedding.

Our country’s households range from families living on the streets of Johannesburg to the deep rural homesteads of the Eastern Cape to the shack settlements of every town in the country to the estates of Constantia. It’s impractical to write an article that has the best answer for everyone’s needs. For this article, we’ve had in mind households that use 250 to 650 kilowatt hours (kWh) of grid power per month. That covers most homes in the country.

What you do depends on how much money you are able or willing to spend. Below we list some reasonable options. We hope it helps to inform your decision.

Less than R10,000: Option 1 - small adjustments

For this amount of money you can convert to an affordable gas oven and stove, get battery operated or solar lights, and install a low-cost UPS to keep your router, cellphones and laptops going during loadshedding.

You might also consider buying a power pack for R300 to R1,100 to recharge your cellphone or even your laptop.

This option allows you to use electronic devices, have lights on and cook during loadshedding. A gas oven/stove also makes you much less dependent on Eskom.

On the downside you have to do a bit of fiddling with lights every time loadshedding starts, and remember to charge lights and other devices when you have grid power. Also, a low-cost UPS may not get you through four-hour blackouts. And gas cooking devices may not be feasible in some apartment blocks. Gas cooking is also more expensive than using the grid.

Albeit fiddly, this definitely works, quite well in fact. As loadshedding stages rise though, it becomes harder.

Less than R40,000: Option 2 - small inverter/battery

Buy a 3kW inverter and battery and get an electrician to connect it to your house’s system.

This gets you through two-hour and, depending on your usage, four-hour loadsheds. It’s more convenient than option one but pricier.

You might not be able to use your stove, geyser, borehole pump or pool pump with this inverter. If you use several electric devices during loadshedding, you’ll probably trip the system, but with frugal use this option definitely helps.

Less than R40,000: Option 3 - diesel generator (we hate this option)

This is unequivocally the worst option presented here but one many people have gone for. In some circumstances, such as apartment blocks with very little roof space, it may be unavoidable, but it should be considered the option of very last resort. Diesel generators are noisy, smelly, smoky, less safe and emit significant greenhouse gases. Your neighbourhood will not be pleased with you if you go this way. If too many of us choose this option, we’ll turn South Africa’s suburbs into a dystopia.

The cost of diesel is about R10 per kilowatt hour. A household that currently uses 400kWh per month of grid power can expect to spend R600 per month on diesel during stage 4 loadshedding. This is not the road to independence from Eskom’s grid. Also do you really want to be spending time constantly carting diesel from your local garage to your home and filling up a generator?

Less than R100,000: Option 4 - 5kW inverter plus one or two 5.1kWh batteries

Buying a 5kW inverter and one or two 5.1kWh batteries will even get you through four-hour blackouts. You can also use one of your oven, stove, borehole or pool pump, but probably not two or more of these at the same time (maybe you could use the pool pump plus one other). It is also a big step towards less dependence on Eskom.

There is one problem though: it still depends on Eskom to charge the batteries. If too many households go for this option without getting solar panels to charge the batteries, it will put enormous pressure on the grid and exacerbate loadshedding. But as an interim step before buying solar panels, it’s definitely worth considering.

Less than R100,000: Option 5 - rent a solar system

A number of companies now offer decent solar setups for rent. At least one company offers a 5kW inverter, a 5.1kWh battery and eight solar panels for R1,580 per month. This is option 4 but with far less dependence on Eskom; you generate your own power.

A downside is that if you cancel within 36 months you pay a R20,000 fee, and R10,000 if you cancel in years four to six. Also, the monthly payment goes up annually. It’s also not clear who would get the income from selling electricity back to the grid, when that becomes an option, at least in Cape Town, in mid-2023.

This appears to be quite a new option, so read the contract carefully before proceeding. Customer reviews on Google range from glowing to stomping through the floor. Interestingly, one of the main complaints is how long the waiting time is, suggesting demand is high.

Less than R150,000: Option 6 - medium-sized solar

Installing a system with a 5kW inverter, one or two 5.1kWh batteries and up to five solar panels will get you through any loadshedding and make you virtually independent of the grid on sunny days.

You can use one oven, stove, borehole or pool pump at any one time but usually not two or more of these devices together unless you pay an extra R15,000 for an 8kW inverter. You will probably be able to sell some power back to the grid from mid-2023 on sunny days, depending on where you live.

This is an excellent option if you can afford it.

Less than R200,000: Option 7 - the full monty

If your household uses less than 700kWh per month you can probably be virtually grid-free, at least in the sunny months, by getting the following system installed: an 8kW inverter, two 5.1kWh batteries and eight to twelve 545W solar panels. (You may go a bit over R200,000 if you have eleven or twelve solar panels.)

With this, you can run any standard household, usually without giving a second thought to which appliances are on: you might even be able to use the borehole pump, the oven and the stove all at the same time. But you may need a little bit of grid power if there are several consecutive heavily overcast days.

If you don’t have a pool pump or borehole pump, you do have a solar geyser, and you use a gas oven, you can save about R15,000 with a 5kW inverter instead of an 8kW one.

With this option, you’ll be able to sell a lot of power to the grid on sunny days. Apparently, this will be allowed, at least in Cape Town, from mid-2023.

To sell to the grid you’ll also need a bidirectional metre. These are currently just shy of R11,000, but the prices are expected to come down soon.

An argument can be made that if you can implement this option then you should. It will help alleviate the pressure on the grid.

Apartment blocks

Apartments are one of the most sustainable ways to live. But loadshedding solutions for apartment blocks can be especially tricky. Often there isn’t much roof space for solar panels. Also, the residents will usually have to negotiate a use agreement with each other. If your apartment block has solved the loadshedding problem, we are very keen to hear from you.

What about informal settlements and RDP houses?

An important achievement of the post-apartheid government has been to provide electricity to millions of people living in informal settlements and RDP houses. This achievement is being undone by the deterioration of Eskom. No option we’ve listed above is feasible for the vast majority of people living in such housing.

We are interested in hearing from organisations and residents that are experimenting with providing non-grid power to informal settlements, or solving loadshedding for RDP neighbourhoods.

Correction on 2023-02-01 15:27

The original article stated that gas cooking is "significantly more expensive" than using the grid. After further consultation, we have removed the word "significantly". The margin is not huge.

TOPICS:  Electricity

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