PORT ELIZABETH - South Africa’s load shedding has had an unexpected consequence – it’s speeded up the decarbonisation of the national power grid and made South Africans far more receptive to green energy solutions.

Hiten Parmar is the director of uYilo, the national e-mobility programme established in 2013 at the Nelson Mandela University. uYilo, which means Create in isiXhosa, is a government sponsored innovation hub that’s looking not only to making electromobility a South African reality but to fully exploring ways to harness other uses for electric vehicles – like creating power to feed back into the national grid and smarter ways of getting the best power supply at the right time from the right source.

Parmar was speaking to the members of the EVRT Africa team conducting the inaugural road trip by commercially available electric vehicles from Pretoria to Cape Town. Driving in seven cars provided by BMW, Nissan and Jaguar, the road trippers undertook the 2000km journey to dispel concerns around range anxiety and to showcase the associated intelligent technology that is incorporated into electric vehicles.

“The EV is a larger battery on wheels,” said Parmar, “and thanks to load-shedding, we already have increasing numbers of people opting for solar power for their geysers, LED lighting, gas for their stoves… they have been forced to become more energy conscious.”

One of his projects, using a first-generation LEAF donated by Nissan, has been to develop a bi-directional invertor showing how excess power in an EV’s battery pack can be directed back into the home to power household utensils. Simultaneously Nissan has been developing its own in house V2G technology, which the latest edition of the LEAF supports.

The uYilo facility has built a mini-smart grid to power its fleet of sponsored EVs through the best use of available power, using a mix of solar power from panel on the carport roofs, Eskom and second life batteries.

uYilo developed power management apps to monitor weather patterns and buy power from Eskom at the cheapest possible price should the forecast be for cloudy weather or even rain, with the power – whether from solar or Eskom being stored in second use battery packs taken from a Nissan LEAF and the still born South African concept EV, the Joule.

Parmar is an EV evangelist for EVs; both as a transport solution and power supply in their own right.

“You can run an electric car for 24c/km as opposed to R1.20/km, plus there’s a major benefit on maintenance because there are far fewer parts in an electric motor compared to the internal combustion engine. The chance of failure is also far less on an EV.”

It’s batteries that hold the key though.

“In Japan, 24kW can power an entire house for two days,” he said. The second life battery packs at the uYilo mini smart grid hold that and more: the LEAF battery pack storing 24kW, and the Joule 36kW.

The technology at the moment is expensive; batteries make up a third of the purchase price of an EV, but the cost has been steadily decreasing in price while the load carrying capacity has been commensurately increasing. Manufacturers change batteries when their load capacity drops to 80% of original capacity – normally 10 to 12 years after instalment, with a further 15-year lifespan as a second life battery used for storing power in homes or businesses. Thereafter they can be broken down and repurposed as smaller battery packs or recycled to make new batteries.

The Coega Industrial Development Zone is bidding to have the first South African plants building EV battery packs by next year, he said, with the next step being the creation of recycling plants for the second and third life phases.

The EV revolution is almost upon South Africa, whether we know it or not, said Parmar.

“There is a mass acceleration of EV globally and even though South Africa is slightly behind, a lot of the vehicles that come to South Africa come In from the EU. Next year we will be seeing new EVs from Mercedes Benz and Volkswagen being launched here bringing the number of OEMs selling EVs to five, we’re seeing a momentum in the uptake, but what’s critical is localisation, we need to start building niche vehicles of our own; from safari viewing vehicles to buses, scooters, not just for South Africa but for Africa.”

Charging infrastructure was no longer as big a problem as people might think, with 121 speed charge points throughout the country, he said. “The installation of a speed charging point in Harrismith has made it possible to drive an EV down to Durban from Joburg.”

As for pricing, while the OEMs were working with government to address the issue, globally the original estimates for EV to reach parity with ICE vehicles in terms of production costs had been slashed from 2028 to 2025 and now 2020.

“The challenge that we perceive isn’t as great as we see,” he said.

EVRT Africa ended on Thursday October 10 in Cape Town.

Kevin Ritchie is a freelance writer.