/ 30 June 2023

The great disconnect: Ramokgopa’s solar geyser plan to decrease load-shedding

Solar geysers.

The Eskom board will achieve its promised energy availability factor of 75% by December next year, according to Electricity Minister Kgosientsho Ramokgopa — but it will come at a price.

Speaking to the Mail & Guardian, he said the National Energy Crisis Committee’s (Necom’s) demand-side energy saving management strategies include encouraging 200 000 households to switch to solar geysers — coupled with the installation of smart meters — to reduce one stage of load-shedding.

When the Eskom board was appointed in October last year, it promised Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan that measures taken would help the utility achieve an energy availability factor of 70% by March this year. 

The availability factor of electricity is currently 60%.

Ramokgopa said: “If we install these geysers in 200 000 households, we can reduce electricity demand by 1 000 megawatts … which could be done in the next six months.”

He encouraged households to buy solar geysers and said municipalities would install the smart meters, measures which would reduce demand and “also result in significant savings for consumers”. 

The smart meters can be switched off remotely.

Ramokgopa estimates it will cost Eskom about R16 billion to install smart meters in eight million homes in the country.

But a source at Eskom said households would ultimately pay for the smart meters through tariff increases that municipalities would be able to levy.

“The changing of meters will be free for the communities at the beginning stage, but consumers will have to pay it through tariff increases that will be increased next year. 

“This will ensure both Eskom and municipalities get their money back for changing the system,” the source said 

Ramokgopa said South Africans should move to solar geysers and smart meters out of “genuine commitment to resolving the problem of load-shedding”.

During his budget vote in May, Ramokgopa said the country has about 5.4 million geysers connected to the grid and that the average daily energy consumption is about six kilowatts per hour per household.

Excessive electricity demand during peak times — 6am to 9am and 5pm to 9pm — will be curbed by disconnecting residential customers who exceed the “responsible” usage limits of 20 kilowatts a day, the minister said.

Eskom chief engineer Edison Makwarela, expanding on the smart meter plan, said the average power demand from geysers accounts for about 10% of Eskom’s power capacity, reaching as high as 35% during daily peak periods. By remotely monitoring and controlling geysers, he said Eskom can identify and address “excessive” energy usage, ultimately alleviating load-shedding.

Eskom already has a demand response programme with industrial users. These are annual contracts with the power utility that have been in effect since 2010 and result in users being compensated through favourable rates or discounts in exchange for cutting power usage. 

These times are determined by Eskom, and are typically during peak hours or when unplanned power outages occur and demand needs to be reduced to stabilise the grid.

The power utility is now piloting this programme in the Fourways area in Gauteng with smaller businesses and households.

Eskom said the objective of the pilot is to test, among other things, the appropriateness of technologies, market uptake, as well as implementation and participation in this sector.

The project is set to run from July until September or until “the threshold of 50 megawatts has been reached,” the utility said.

It added that should the pilot project be successful, it will be rolled out to many other areas in the country.

Customers will be notified an hour before load-shedding starts on their smart meters and cell phones. This will give them time to switch off non-essential items such as heaters, air conditioners, stoves, lawnmowers and pool pumps, but allow them to keep essential appliances such as wi-fi routers and lights on during load-shedding. 

If consumers don’t respond, their total supply of electricity will be switched off for the duration of load-shedding.

Adriaan Davidse, a director at consulting service Deloitte, warned that with the installation of the smart meters an algorithm must be written so that changes are introduced gradually countrywide to “prevent sudden mass switch-offs or switch-ons that will be detrimental to grid stability”.

He said that smart geyser controllers, equipped with real-time data and accessible through a mobile app, provide homeowners with the ability to manage their geysers’ heating schedule from wherever they are. 

Davidse added that thousands of homeowners had already installed smart geysers, with nearly 50% using an app for efficient water-heating control.

Ramokgopa said the demand-side management plan will improve the performance of Medupi, Lethabo, Matimba, Kusile, Matla and Kendal power stations and that Eskom can maintain lower stages of load-shedding because the number of breakdowns at power stations have reduced.

Eskom generation head Bheki Nxumalo explained that a generation operational recovery programme is being implemented to recover the performance of these plants to improve the current electricity availability factor of 60% to 65% by March 2024 and 75% by March 2025.

“Several enablers [such as increased diesel use] are being implemented to ensure that the generation recovery programme is successful.” 

Nxumalo said ongoing work will also result in an additional 3 200 megawatts from “stranded” solar photovoltaic panels that currently cannot feed into the grid . 

Ramokgopa said there is significant potential for households and businesses to install rooftop solar panels and also feed excess power into the grid.

To ensure accessibility, the government has secured a partnership with a major financier to facilitate the provision of smart meters and provide financing options such as tax rebates for solar panels, as announced in February by Finance Minister Enoch Godongwana.

These finance options include taking out loans and paying them back over a period of five years.

The municipalities will put aside a budget for poor residents to supply solar panels and solar geysers.

The Development Bank of Southern Africa will also partner with the government to facilitate the roll-out of the smart meters and provide financing for poorer households.

Mandisa Nyathi is a climate reporting fellow, funded by the Open Society Foundation for South Africa.