Pia Solar independent power producer in De aar in Northern Cape.Photo:Nicholas Rama

Johannesburg - Proponents of localised and small-scale electricity generation often tell how the rabid growth of cellphones turned the telecoms industry on its head and rendered fixed-line technologies almost obsolete.

The rising cost and availability of electricity has prompted a search for an alternative supply of electricity.

Through the government Independent Power Producer Procurement Programme, many have taken note of the potential of renewable energy. Since the start of the programme in November 2011, 92 renewable energy projects contribute over 6 000 megawatts to the national electricity grid.

The advent of decentralised energy supply through localised, small-scale grids came under the spotlight at an energy conference in Johannesburg last week.

“Cellphones blew the fixed-line market. I believe we are going to have a similar evolution,” Frank Spencer, who is responsible for business development at Consolidated Power Projects, said at the conference.

Solar photovoltaic (PV) is the most suitable technology for decentralised electricity generation because the system can be easily installed on existing structures such as rooftops.

Nano Energy managing director Jason Schäffler said the benefits of mini grids included increased renewable energy deployment, increased labour intensity of energy supply, economic stability through energy diversity, local economic development and the advancement of previously disadvantaged individuals, while avoiding environmental degradation.

Schäffler said the mini grids concept was not new in South Africa.

“It started about 15 years ago and has had mixed success. There are a growing number of mini grids especially in the tourism industry, for example, off-grid lodges. There are about 50 small grids in South Africa,” he said.

Ball rolling

He said while the deployment of mini grids had been successful in the private sector, success had been limited in community electrification, mainly because of problems regarding ownership and system maintenance.

The National Energy Regulator of South Africa (Nersa) has started the ball rolling to encourage small-scale electricity generation.

Nersa last year issued a consultation paper on small-scale embedded PV generation. This is for projects between 100 kilowatts and 1MW.

But since the publication of the consultation paper, not much has happened as Nersa is awaiting Department of Energy regulations on the matter.

“The licensing regulations are not yet finalised by the Department of Energy. The process is almost at the final stages. Before the regulations are gazetted, the Department of Energy will consult with stakeholders,” Nersa spokesman Charles Hlebela said.

SA Photovoltaic Industry Association chief executive Moeketsi Thobela said it was ready for small-scale embedded generation, “especially taking into account the increased demand resulting from falling PV system costs and rising electricity prices”.

However, he said there had not been any discussion of a “national” programme.

“The programmes that are currently in place are driven by various municipalities such as City of Cape Town and Nelson Mandela Bay Municipality. They make provision for residential customers to connect roof-top PV systems to their distribution grids, subject to certain requirements related to technical performance, as well as retail electricity tariffs and regulatory arrangements,” Thobela said.

Saliem Fakir, the head of the Living Plant Unit at WWF South Africa, said on-site generation would take at least five years to take off in the country.

“But I believe it is going to be a phenomenon for the future,” Fakir said.

When it did take off on a bigger scale, on-site generation would pose a threat to Eskom’s “old school” business model, Fakir said.