685 A shack in the Madelakufa Park informal settlement with a solar panel for lighting on the roof.This panel can power four small lights with a lifespan of about 100 000 hours-a cost of about 1,5c an hour. 230707. Picture: Reuben Mabandla

If a Stellenbosch University student has his way, shack dwellers will enjoy solar power in much the same way the method is already being used successfully in formal housing.

And to prove it’s possible, Andreas

Keller, student researcher in sustainable development, has piloted a DC (direct current) microgrid system in the informal settlement of Enkanini, outside Stellenbosch.

Keller is part of a group of researchers, funded by the National Research Foundation, looking at sustainable ways to upgrade informal settlements.

Solar and wind power have long been used in low-cost housing development, but rarely in informal structures.

“Solar PV (photo-voltaic) technology… is constantly evolving, making it a simpler and cheaper energy system. This is an affordable and safe way to electrify informal settlement households,” Keller said.

The project, which has been in its test phase since last October, is already in use in both Enkanini and the Siyahlala informal settlement in Philippi.

The test system consists of a 20-watt solar panel, a battery, three one-watt LED bulbs, a motion-activated outdoor security light and cellphone charger.

Keller said six hours of sunlight could provide 72watts an hour of available energy.

“Each LED light uses only 1.5w/h, while the cellphone charger takes even less than one w/h. That still gives you plenty of power. The basic system can be incrementally upgraded over time to incorporate larger appliances, such as TVs and refrigerators, based on their budget.”

Keller designed the project for his thesis, and as a way to avoid the dangers of self-made and illegal electricity connections, and in response to his concern for the poor.

Apart from Stellenbosch University, the project is being supported by Specialised Solar Systems, the Stellenbosch Municipality, the Community Resource Organisation Centre and the Sustainability Institute.

Maintenance is simple, with each battery lasting between two and three years, and replaceable at a low cost.

The system uses direct current instead of alternating current (AC) found in most homes. Most solar PV systems convert DC into AC through an inversion process that involves high-efficiency losses, pushing up costs.

Eliminating this inversion drastically reduces costs. The solar system can also be integrated into an AC power grid, so preventing it from becoming redundant.

Victor Mziwanadli, one of the first residents to use the system, said it changed his life.

“Before, I used paraffin for lighting, but it was very dangerous to have in the house with two young children. The light was also poor and hurt my eyes. I had to charge my cellphone at a shop in town and I used to have to wait around for hours.

“Now I have light and can charge my cellphone in the kitchen. It’s an easy system to understand and look after.”

Keller said there were also plans to set up a power grid energy service and support hub, where people could buy extra power and DC appliances.

Researchers were also looking to integrate the system with water and waste management.

The test phase is nearing completion, and developing service infrastructure is next.

“We want to prove that this can be done. Once the support structures are set up, we will approach Human Settlements and hopefully roll this out nationwide,” Keller said.

- Weekend Argus