City battles to keep up with demand for solar systems by Cape residents who want to cash in

Mayor Geordin Hill-Lewis announced that the appetite for rooftop solar PV is at record levels. Picture: Western Cape Blood Service/Facebook

Mayor Geordin Hill-Lewis announced that the appetite for rooftop solar PV is at record levels. Picture: Western Cape Blood Service/Facebook

Published Jun 9, 2023


Cape Town - The City of Cape Town is struggling to keep up with the volume of applications for solar power installations from households and companies and those who want payback for feeding into the grid as promised by government.

On top of the applications for Small System Embedded Generation (SSEG) applications, was the struggle with incomplete or incorrect submissions.

At the end of last year, the turnaround time for these approvals was as quick as two weeks, but now residents and businesses are experiencing waiting periods of between two and five months for the go-ahead from the City to install on their properties and feed into the grid.

This comes just a few days after Mayor Geordin Hill-Lewis announced that the appetite for rooftop solar PV is at record levels with residents looking to capitalise on the City’s incentive programmes as it aims to be the first municipality to end load shedding.

Hill-Lewis said: ‘“Most of Cape Town’s installed solar PV capacity is commercial, but residential applications are what’s driving record-breaking interest levels. This clearly shows the effect of our policy shift to expand how we are actively supporting the uptake of safe and legal solar installations.”

Solar Advice spokesperson Sam Berrows said: “The City claims to be pro-solar; however, the registration and approval process demand far outweighs their capacity to complete these applications promptly. The enormous backlogs prove that the City is currently incapable of handling the large number of applications coming in daily.”

This was echoed by Treetops Renewable Energy Systems, a solar energy equipment supplier based in Diep River Cape Town, who said that aside from affordability and obtaining finance through the right channels, it was struggling to get approvals from the City to actually install the solar panels on roofs.

Treetops has over 400 solar systems registered with the City. Treetops sales manager Stefan Ortmann said: “We do understand that the sheer volume increase has an impact, but a wait of over five months is not acceptable.”

Ortmann said a big problem they faced as an industry was the large influx of new companies, who did not know or obey the rules and installed regardless of approvals, sometimes even without starting the application.

This results in residents and businesses getting saddled with R5 000 to R7 000 fines and the City sometimes cutting the power supply to their homes.

“This contributes to City ’s delays, as they not only deal with all new applications, but also with all transgressions. It is difficult to for the customer to fully understand this and many feel that companies, like Treetops, that want to work within the legal framework are not doing their work properly, simply because ‘everyone else’ is just installing anyway,” he said.

A roof of a commercial building in Pinelands which has been fitted with solar panels. Solar panels are made out of photovoltaic cells converting the sun's energy into electricity. Picture: ARMAND HOUGH/AFRICAN NEWS AGENCY (ANA)

The City issued a statement to Cape Argus stating: “The City is working to dramatically reduce the turnaround time of applications for SSEG systems to a month in future. This is by increasing resources to deal with the applications, switching to an online application system and simplifying the customer experience.”

The City has authorised 5 000 systems to date and from January to April 2023 alone, it received 2 333 applications – this is almost three times more than the equivalent period in 2022.

“Apart from the spike in the volume of applications, many applications are incomplete, do not contain the correct documentation required or misrepresent the design configuration. This adds to lengthy processes and delays and is a health and safety hazard for customers, as well as the teams working on the electricity grid,” the City said.

Yet Berrows, Oortman and others said that when their staff repeatedly try to get hold of City technicians by phone and email to ask questions about an application to ensure they applied correctly, they either get late responses or none at all.

“Their only option is to submit it as is and hope it will be accepted. Not every solar installation is straightforward. In those instances, we need access to information that will enable us to complete an application correctly,” she said.

Undoubtedly, Berrows said, many other solar companies are dealing with the same issues regarding very limited or non-existent communication on the City's part.

Oortman said: “Despite all of the current pains of getting approvals issued, it is a necessary and important step, especially for Cape Town, to reduce the burden of load shedding for all residents.”.

Berrows added: “We hope the City hears our, and their consumers’, cries for faster application turnaround times. Solar power systems have become a necessity for all of us as we face an ever-increasingly unstable grid. If we want to set an example for the rest of the country and the world, the City must address these backlogs and communication issues quickly.”

To make the application process faster and safer, the City said it is working on an online application process that will contain drop-down menus with the various system and document requirements (among others).

“The City is also investing in human resources to deal with the increased applications but also to position the City and its teams to deal with the new energy environment the City is creating as it works to diversify its sources of energy and reduce its dependence on Eskom,” it said.

The City has issued a checklist to help customers choose the right system and although it does not vet installers in the private sector, it has developed a checklist to assist residents exploring this option.