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Off the grid power solutions to mitigate load shedding for SA businesses – PowerPulse

In the final episode of the Standard Bank PowerPulse podcast series, BizNews founder Alec Hogg is joined by Deerosh Maharaj, senior manager for natural resources, power and sustainable solutions on the Standard Bank PowerPulse platform; Paul Vermeulen, chief engineer of renewable energy in the City of Johannesburg; and Hendrik Raedani, chief engineer of alternative and renewable energy in the City of Ekurhuleni, to unpack solar PV installations for businesses that have become reliant on alternative power to mitigate load shedding. There are inputs into the regulatory and compliance factors that businesses should be aware of before they initiate a solar PV installation, together with the consequences of not following the regulations and procedures.

Deerosh Maharaj on the legislation that governs solar PVs for businesses

As a bank, we’ve had to get close to this and from the way we understand it, the overall governing piece of legislation is essentially the Electricity Regulation Act. However, the regulatory process to be followed for power generation assets to be legally connected is far more complex as it draws focus on frames of reference that need to be complied with. Firstly, you’ve got the NERSA framework, which is made up of the NERSA licensing requirements.

That makes reference to the schedule two exemptions and you also have their rules and standards that need to be complied with. In this particular space, we’ve seen the government has shifted to supporting decentralised power generation and recently they’ve increased that threshold from one megawatt to 100 megawatts. So, any system below 100 megawatts no longer needs a NERSA license. However, there are the rules and standards that [must be adhered to].

Secondly, you’ve got the grid codes that you need to comply with as well and that’s a whole other body of reference that must be followed. Finally, the collaboration and sign off from the utility you’re linking to. This must be followed. Sometimes, there’s a connection agreement that needs to be concluded as well. So, in broad strokes, that’s what the regulatory environment looks like.

On the different types of installations that are permitted

You’ve got your grid tied systems, which are essentially a solar PV array and an inverter. In those instances, those systems will provide power when the sun is shining, but it doesn’t give you a backup solution. If there is load shedding, in terms of what the grid code permits and how inverters are configured, the system shuts off as well, technically. You’ve also got backup systems or hybrid systems, which have some component of battery storage. In those systems, you are able to island the system safely, so you can still use your solar and batteries when there is load shedding. Then you have off-grid systems, which have no link to the grid. 

With the off- grid system, you’re completely self-reliant. However, there is no safety net, and the costs are quite astronomical when you’re going off the grid because battery storage is still quite a costly undertaking. A backup system is something that especially now with load shedding we’ve seen challenges in supply. It’s becoming a more and more viable solution to consider. You are basically saying you want solar, but also want four hours of backup. While very costly, sometimes when you establish the downtime costs, you are able to justify it from a cash-flow perspective.

The simplest system from a cash-flow perspective to justify, is a standard system. However, you don’t have that backup capability. So, when there is load shedding, you are [still affected] even if you have solar. Another consideration is to feed back into the grid. Eskom allows you to bank, but you’ve got to follow the process, register and ensure the agreement is in place. You’re basically using the Eskom grid as your storage capability. A lot of municipalities allow for that as well.  

Paul Vermeulen on what businesses should be aware of before they initiate a solar PV installation

Firstly, the National Distribution Grid Code, a mandatory piece of legislation, specifies that an end-user or a customer must inform the network service provider of their intention to connect any form of generating plant to the grid. The first issue from our side is a safety concern and it typically applies to a tide inverter. This is a device that can run in parallel with the grid. This equipment must be certified in terms of what we call NRS 097. It’s not mandatory but Eskom, as well as all the municipalities, require adherence to that particular specification. What that specification says is that the inverter equipment must be able to detect when the grid has gone dead and stop feeding energy back in.

So, from our perspective, that is a key safety issue. We expect that the inverter must have the capability to detect a dead grid and immediately stop feeding energy back into the grid. It doesn’t have to stop supplying the local place, but it must definitely stop feeding power back in. The second main concern which is why we have this legislation is that we need to prevent power quality issues from arising. What I mean by this is that you’re connected to a network and your neighbours are connected to that same network. If you propose a system that’s too big, for example, it can introduce over-voltage conditions, which would start to impact your neighbours. 

There needs to be an application process where you come to us and request to connect this particular equipment or this size of equipment at this point of your network. We then use that NRS 097 stick to [ascertain whether it fits] within what they call the simplified connection criteria. If it does, technically your system looks fine, you can now go ahead and install it. And, in fact, that same specification also stipulates that if your system is bigger than 350 kilowatts, you should do a network study to make sure those effects are not going to happen on the network. 

Hendrik Raedani on the consequences of not following the regulations and procedures

If we give customers a chance to register and they don’t, we have got the right to disconnect power because most of these systems are grid timely. This means that they need a voltage pass from our grid in order to operate. So, if they don’t want to apply to register their systems, we’ve got every right to disconnect. The last time I checked the City of Cape Town, they went as far as giving customers a grace period for the next three months. If you don’t register, we are going to come and disconnect power. There are some fines imposed, almost 6,000.

As the City of Ekurhuleni, we are not at that point where we would want to enforce it, because once you do that, you have capacity in-house to deal with the influx of registration. So as it is now, there is still enough time for people to register. What I have picked up is that most industrial customers do register, as opposed to residential customers because most of the guys doing the installations are more professional. They understand the regulations; 80% to 90% of applications received are from commercial customers and their installers because they are more reputable, so they will push for registration with the council.

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